Blog Cold & flu

How to Prevent a Cold: Tips, Treatment, and More

written by Jennifer Nelson Written by Jennifer Nelson
Jennifer Nelson

Jennifer Nelson

Jennifer is a contributing health writer who has been researching and writing health content with PlushCare for 3 years. She is passionate about bringing accessible healthcare and mental health services to people everywhere.

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November 15, 2021 Read Time - 6 minutes

How to Prevent a Cold – Symptoms, Causes, Stages, and Treatment

Colds are not just inconvenient; they are also the main reason why adults miss work and kids miss school. In fact, the average adult gets two to three colds per year, and children often get more than that.

Are there ways to prevent a cold before you even get symptoms? How can you stop a cold at the first sign? How long does the common cold last? And can you get online cold treatment?

Read on for the answers to these questions, as well as more information about common colds and how you may be able to prevent them.

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  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

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Causes and Symptoms of a Cold

While colds are always caused by a virus, there are many different viruses that can cause a cold. Rhinoviruses are the most common, but other viruses that can lead to a cold include human parainfluenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, common human coronaviruses, adenovirus, and human metapneumovirus.

Cold symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Body aches
  • Headaches

Colds and flus have many of the same symptoms. If you are wondering which one you have, here are some simple ways to tell whether you have a cold vs flu.

What Are the Stages of a Cold?

Most of the time, there are three main stages of a cold.

Stage 1

Typically, a cold will start with a sore throat and other mild symptoms, including fatigue and a slightly stuffy or runny nose with clear mucus. Symptoms gradually get worse over the next few days.

Stage 2

In stage 2, symptoms increase and worsen. This stage usually starts within two to three days and is the worst part of the cold. Symptoms in stage 2 include:

  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Mild aches
  • Cough
  • Tiredness
  • Fatigue

Stage 3

Within 7-10 days, most people start to feel better and symptoms start to improve. Some symptoms may persist for up to two weeks, including:

  • Cough
  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose

How to Prevent a Cold Before it Starts

Wouldn’t it be best to learn how to prevent a cold before it starts? Colds are quite contagious, so it can be hard to avoid catching one. However, there are a few cold prevention tips that may help:

  • Stay away from people who are sick
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth before washing your hands
  • Boost your immune system by eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, and managing your stress levels

How to Stop a Cold at the First Sign

Since it’s not always possible to stop a cold before it starts, let’s talk about how to prevent a cold when you feel it coming. Once you feel symptoms, there’s no way to avoid getting a cold, and there is no cure. However, there are some ways you can lessen the severity and duration of your symptoms:

  • Drink lots of fluids, especially water
  • Get plenty of rest and sleep
  • Eat a healthy diet, including fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat dairy, grains, healthy oils, and protein-rich foods
  • Eat honey
  • Manage your stress levels
  • Use a humidifier
  •  Consider taking supplements like vitamin C, vitamin D, echinacea, and zinc (note that studies have shown mixed results with these supplements and they may cause side effects)
  • Use over-the-counter medications like decongestants, pain relievers, cough syrup, and throat lozenges

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Boost My Immune System to Fight a Cold?

According to Harvard Health, “There are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.” However, they do recommend these healthy living strategies:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t smoke
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Minimize stress
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all
  • Wash your hands and cook meat thoroughly to avoid infections

What Is the Best Thing to Take at the First Sign of a Cold?

There is some evidence that if you take one or more of the following, it may make your cold shorter or less severe. These could help you stop a cold at the first sign:

  • Zinc
  • Echinacea
  • Vitamin C

What Is the Fastest Home Remedy for a Cold?

Unfortunately, there is no way to cure a cold, and there are no fast at-home cold remedies to stop a cold at the first sign. Your best bet for cold treatment is usually to take over the counter medications, get plenty of rest, and drink lots of fluids. 

How Long Does the Common Cold Last?

You can expect the common cold to last three to ten days, but that doesn’t mean anything longer is a cause for concern. Dr. Russ Wasylyshun, MD, a faculty member at the University of Michigan, says that a quarter of patients often have lingering cold symptoms after two weeks.

If your cold symptoms are impacting your ability to go to work or school, you may want to read about how you can get a doctor’s note.

How Can I Prevent Colds Naturally?

The best way to prevent colds naturally is to take good care of yourself. That includes practices such as:

  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Managing your stress levels
  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding refined sugars and carbohydrates

Could it Be Strep Throat, COVID-19, or the Flu Rather than a Cold?

Many illnesses have similar symptoms to the common cold, so it can be hard to know just what you’re dealing with. Symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes in your neck
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Red spots on the roof of your mouth
  • Malaise

Symptoms of the flu can include:

  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children)

COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • New loss of smell or taste
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

If your symptoms are severe, see a doctor and consider getting tested to find out if you may have the flu or COVID-19. Keep in mind that antibiotics are not useful in treating a cold, the flu, or COVID-19.

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.


Can I Get Cold Treatment Online?

You can get cold treatment online with a video or phone appointment from a licensed PlushCare doctor.

If your cold symptoms don’t clear up within 10 days, or if you think you might have something other than a cold, it’s time to talk to a doctor. You don’t need to go to the doctor’s office, though. Now, you can book a convenient online doctor appointment.

With PlushCare, you can have a video or phone appointment with one of our trusted doctors. Your doctor can answer your questions and recommend home treatments. If your physician thinks you would benefit from a medication not available over the counter, they can electronically send a prescription to your local pharmacy.

Getting started with PlushCare is easy. Simply click here, or you can download the PlushCare mobile app for free. You could talk to a doctor as soon as today!

Read More About How to Prevent a Cold


PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

CDC. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Accessed on January 11, 2021.

Harvard Health Publishing. How to boost your immune system. Accessed on January 11, 2021.

Mayo Clinic. Cold remedies: What works, what doesn’t, what can’t hurt. Accessed on January 11, 2021.

Health. How Long Does a Cold Last? Here’s How Many Days You Can Expect to Experience Symptoms. Accessed on November 12, 2021.

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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