Getting a cold is never fun. Between the coughing, sneezing, sore throat, and overall fatigue, colds can really take a lot out of you. When we feel a cold coming on, many of us wonder if we can make it go away faster by resting more. Here’s a closer look at what the research says.
What causes colds?
Colds are caused by viruses, most commonly rhinoviruses. There are actually over 200 different virus strains that can cause the common cold! When one of these viruses makes its way into your body, usually through your nose, throat, or eyes, it starts attacking and multiplying inside your cells. This triggers an immune response, causing symptoms like coughing and sneezing which help expel the virus from your body.
So in summary, you get a cold when a virus enters your body and your immune system reacts to try to get rid of it. The cold symptoms themselves are side effects of this immune response.
Does resting help fight off a virus?
Your immune system is your body’s defense against viruses and other foreign invaders. So it would make sense that resting when you have a cold could strengthen your immune response and help fight off the virus faster. But what does the research actually say?
There have been a few studies that looked at bed rest during a cold, but the findings have been mixed:
- A 1969 study found no difference in severity or duration of cold symptoms between subjects who rested in bed for 5 days vs. those who engaged in normal activity.
- A 1976 study found that subjects who stayed in bed for 3 days early on in their illness recovered slightly faster than those who didn’t.
- A 2002 study found that staying home and resting for 2-4 days slightly reduced the duration and severity of cold symptoms.
More recent reviews looking at all the evidence have concluded that bed rest has minimal effect on the course of the common cold:
- A 2011 analysis found that bed rest alone provided no benefits in treating common cold symptoms.
- A 2013 review stated that “there is no convincing evidence that bed rest provides any benefits for adults with an acute respiratory infection such as the common cold.”
So while a day or two of rest early on may help you feel a bit better, extending your bed rest likely won’t make your cold go away any faster. Your immune system fights colds the same whether you’re resting or not.
Are there any downsides to prolonged rest?
Spending several days in bed might not speed up your recovery, but could it be actively harmful in any way? Here are a few potential downsides of prolonged bed rest to consider:
- Postural hypotension: Lying down for long periods can cause blood to pool in your legs. When you stand up, this can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure leading to dizziness.
- Blood clots: Lack of movement increases the risk of developing potentially dangerous blood clots in your legs.
- Muscle weakness: Too much time resting can cause muscle weakness and deconditioning.
- Joint stiffness: Not moving your joints through their full range of motion can cause stiffness.
- Mood effects: Excess inactivity has been linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Poor sleep: Too much daytime resting can disrupt your natural sleep cycle.
So while a day or two of rest when you first feel sick makes sense, extended continuous bed rest could end up making you feel worse in some ways.
What does help fight colds?
If resting in bed isn’t the best way to bounce back from a cold, what strategies do help? Here are some evidence-based ways to help your immune system overcome a cold faster:
- Stay hydrated: Drink lots of fluids like water, broths, and tea. Staying hydrated helps thin mucus secretions.
- Try chicken soup: Warm broth can soothe your throat and the vegetables and protein may provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Use saline nasal spray: This helps relieve congestion and could reduce virus shedding.
- Take zinc supplements: Zinc deficiency can weaken your immune response. Supplements may reduce symptom severity and duration.
- Try echinacea: Some studies show the herb echinacea, often taken as a tea, can slightly reduce cold length.
- Get light exercise: Light walking, yoga, etc. may help circulation and mood without taxing you.
- Manage stress: High stress is linked to reduced immune function. Try relaxing activities like meditation.
The key is listening to your body. Mild activity can often be helpful, but don’t overexert yourself. Give your body what it needs to rest and recover, while also providing immune-supporting care.
The bottom line
Here’s the summary of the evidence on bed rest for colds:
- Complete bed rest provides little, if any, benefit for cold recovery.
- 1-2 days of rest early in illness may help modestly with symptoms.
- Prolonged bed rest can cause side effects like muscle weakness and blood clots.
- Hydration, nutrition, stress management, and light activity tend to be more beneficial.
So go ahead and take a sick day, stay cozy in bed with some chicken soup, and give your body the downtime it craves. But also keep lightly moving when you can, keep up good self-care, and know that resting too much generally won’t change the course of your cold.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do colds usually last?
The average cold lasts about 1-2 weeks from the onset of symptoms. In children, colds may last up to 14 days. In adults, colds usually resolve within 7-10 days.
When are you most contagious with a cold?
You’re generally most contagious with a cold during the first 2-3 days of illness. Viral shedding and the potential to infect others drops significantly after the first few days.
Is it possible to get a cold from being cold?
No, cold temperatures alone won’t make you sick. Colds are caused by viruses. But exposure to cold can impact your immune function, so bundling up in chilly weather isn’t a bad idea.
Should you exercise with a cold?
Doing light exercise like walking, yoga, or cycling can be beneficial when you have a cold. But avoid strenuous workouts that could put excessive strain on your body while it’s fighting an infection.
Are antibiotics effective for treating colds?
No, antibiotics have no effect on viral infections like colds. They only work against bacterial infections. Taking antibiotics when they aren’t needed can do more harm than good.
Getting plenty of rest is certainly important when you have a cold, especially in the first couple days when symptoms tend to be worst. But evidence does not show that extending bed rest beyond that speed up recovery. Instead of prolonged inactive rest, focus on hydration, nutrition, stress relief, light activity, and other supportive care to help your immune system overcome the virus as quickly as possible.