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6 Answers to Common Cold Questions

Is it a cold or a flu? Does visiting the gym increase your odds of catching a cold? Are you blowing your nose the wrong way? We’re here to clear up questions about the common cold.

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Is there really a wrong way to blow your nose?

Mom was right about this one. Vigorous honking really is counterproductive for two reasons. First, it triggers “reflex nasal congestion” – your nasal passages swell up temporarily, which traps mucus. Second, full-force nose blowing creates a vacuum deep in your sinus passages; once you stop blowing, mucus gets sucked backward, deeper into your sinuses. A better way to blow: With a tissue over both nostrils, close one side and gently blow the other for 3 to 5 seconds. Switch sides. It may take several blows, but it works.

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How long can I use a nasal spray for a stuffy nose?

Two to 3 days. Over-the-counter sprays containing phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine) or oxymetazoline (Afrin, Dristan) shrink swollen blood vessels in the lining of your nose, allowing trapped mucus to drain. The good thing about the sprays is that they work almost instantaneously, and they won’t keep you awake at night or cause other side effects typical of oral decongestants. The downside is that, after 3 to 5 days, they can cause rebound congestion – the more you use them, the faster your nose gets stuffed up again after each spray, leading you to use more and more. To avoid this problem, some experts recommend using a spray for no more than 2 to 3 days at a time. Then stop for 3 days. If you’re still congested, it’s okay to use it again for 2 to 3 days.

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Every time I renew my efforts to go to the gym, I seem to catch a cold. Is it all in my head?

You may be on to something. Intense exercise can decrease levels of infection-fighting white blood cells in your body temporarily and boost levels of stress hormones that may interfere with your immune system’s ability to fight off cold viruses. Coupled with the possibility that you’re picking up germs from gym equipment or in the locker room, your workouts might very well be making you sick. That doesn’t mean that all exercise opens the door to colds. In fact, a consistent, medium-intensity routine is a proven cold-stopper. Taking a brisk, 40-minute walk 4 days a week, for example, can cut the number of colds you experience by 25 to 50 percent and can make the colds you do catch shorter by half, studies show. Moderate exercise boosts the number and activity level of important immune-system players called natural killer cells.

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How do I know if it’s a cold or the flu?

Take your temperature and assess how you feel. If you have influenza, you will likely have a temperature (101°F or higher) and terrible headache, feel achy all over, and be incredibly tired. It’s rare to have a significant fever with a cold. The primary symptoms of a cold are a stuffy and/or runny nose, cough, and sore throat, which rarely occur with the flu. While you may feel tired if you have a cold, with the flu, you probably won’t be able to get out of bed.

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If I have a runny nose from a cold, am I better off drying it up or letting it go?

Go ahead and make yourself comfortable. Congestion and a runny nose are side effects of your body’s efforts to fight off the viral infections that cause colds and flu. Reversing them with a decongestant won’t slow down healing and may in fact help you avoid complications like a sinus infection. To clear your nose, decongestants containing pseudoephedrine are more effective than those containing phenylephrine. A British study of 283 women and men with stuffy noses found that those who took 60 milligrams of pseudoephedrine reported a 30 percent drop in congestion after just one dose.

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Should I take echinacea all the time or just during cold season?

Don’t take echinacea every day, year-round. It’s not known for certain, but there’s reason to worry that taking this herb for longer than 2 months at a time may cause serious side effects, such as liver damage. Instead, use it in specific situations.

Before cold season. To use echinacea to prevent the sniffles, start taking it a week or two before cold season starts. That’s a tricky date to pin down, depending on where you live, though in many parts of the world, that means late summer or early fall. If you take echinacea for the entire cold season, take at least a 1 week break every 2 months.

At the first signs of a cold. Start taking it right away and you might feel better sooner.

Before you fly. You might consider starting it a week before you’ll be exposed to others who might have colds, such as travelling by air, says University of Connecticut professor of pharmacy Craig I. Coleman, PharmD. The usual dose is 900 milligrams per day of echinacea extract or 2,700 milligrams of dried herb powder.