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5 early signs of a cold and what you can do about it

Dr Prudence Knight photo

Created: 6 October, 2016

Updated: 18 June, 2019

Did you know that the average person can spend up to five years of their life laid low by the common cold?

Colds remain one of the leading causes of absence among UK workers and is responsible for many a spoiled weekend or holiday.

It’s not hard to see why scientists have put so much energy into finding a cure!

While that still hasn’t happened, we’re here to help you stop your cold from having things all its own way. So how can you stop a cold when you feel it coming on? By looking out for the warning signs and taking steps to tackle them. In doing so, you will return to normal health much quicker.

What are the early warning signs of a cold?

One of the main differences between a cold and the more severe flu virus is that with a cold, your symptoms arrive gradually. Meanwhile, flu sufferers will be hit suddenly and have little or no time to prepare.

If you notice any of the following symptoms, it could be a sign that a cold is on the way:

  • Sore Throat - This is one of the most common early symptoms of a viral infection.
  • Runny Nose - You will start to notice mucus building up in your nose. This will start off fairly thin and watery, but as your cold progresses it can get thicker, so make sure you keep a pack of tissues handy.
  • Coughs and Sneezes - This is your body’s way of trying to get rid of anything that can damage your airways, such as dust, pollen or - in this case - viruses.
  • Headache - As mucus begins to build up, it clogs your sinuses and creates pressure that leads to a dull, throbbing headache.
  • Tiredness - Feeling weak and tired is a symptom of most viruses. If you’ve not got your usual energy, it could be a sign that your cold is about to make a grand entrance.

Once these symptoms start, there’s no way to avoid your cold. It’s coming, so all you can do is manage your symptoms and make the best of it. 

Do you have a sore throat and a fever?

If you're suffering from a sore throat as well as a fever, you might have more than a cold. Sometimes, experiencing both of these symptoms can mean that you're coming down with an infection like tonsillitis. Infections like this require antibiotics to treat effectively, and for you to start feeling better, sooner.

Talk to a doctor about your sore throat
Click to find out more.

What can you do about your cold?

There are steps you can take to deal with the worst of your cold and, according to some studies, shorten your recovery time. Let’s take a look at your options:

Stay hydrated

Water helps your immune system fight off any infection, so it’s important to stay hydrated as soon as you suspect a cold. Drinking plenty of water will help you replace any fluids lost from constantly blowing your nose or sweating, as well as loosening any mucus at the back of your throat.

Steam is another good way to achieve this. A hot shower will help clear your airways and provide the relaxation you need to distract yourself from your symptoms.

You can also fill a bowl with hot water, cover your head with a towel and slowly inhale the steam (it’s not advisable to use this method with children, as they may spill the water and burn themselves). Adding a splash of eucalyptus or Vicks will enhance the experience.

Avoid comfort food

If you’re feeling poorly, it can be tempting to gorge on your favourite comfort foods to help you feel better. While there is an old myth that you should ‘feed a cold’, the reality is that this will probably make you feel even more unwell.

High-fat diets have been shown to slow down your immune system’s response to infection, which will make it harder to fight off infections such as a cold. You need the nutrients provided by a balanced diet to help your recovery.

However, don’t be tempted to try a crash diet, as these have also been shown to reduce your immune system function.

You should also remember that not all fat is bad. Some, such as the fats you get from oily fish and nuts, are an important part of your diet regardless of whether or not you have a cold.

Keep reading for more suggestions on what you should eat while you have a cold.

Orange juice

OrangesWhile it’s not quite the magical cure that some would have you believe, a glass of orange juice can provide some comfort for cold sufferers.

If you get a good supply of OJ as soon as you feel a cold coming on, it can boost your immune system. However, the difference for most people is negligible.

It’s always good to get more vitamin C, and if you find it helps you, make sure you opt for natural, freshly squeezed juice as opposed to the high-sugar varieties sold in shops.


A 2001 study tested 146 volunteers, half of whom were given a daily garlic supplement and half received a placebo.

The garlic group suffered just 24 colds over a 12-week period and endured 111 days of ill health due to viruses.

On the other hand, the placebo people reported 65 colds and a significantly higher 366 days where a virus prevented them from carrying out their usual activities.

It’s thought that raw garlic is the most effective here, as cooking it too much will rob you of any potential positive effects. There are capsules available if you (understandably) don’t fancy chewing on a clove straight from the cupboard!

Tried these remedies and still feel unwell? See a doctor today
Click to find out more.


While chicken soup is the most commonly-prescribed, in fact any broth-based soup will help you feel a little better. It’ll warm you up and we’ve already discussed how water and steam can help with your symptoms.

However, it’s important to choose the best soup for the job. You should avoid creamy soups, as these are higher in fat (which, as we know, hampers your immune system), and consider including some vegetables in your broth to get even more nutrients.

Spicy food

The chemical that gives chilli peppers their spice is called capsaicin. As well as adding a kick to your dinner, there are plenty of other benefits, not least a healthy amount of vitamin C.

If you’re coming down with a cold, chilli peppers can ease congestion and reduce swelling around your nose and throat. It’ll also help make your mucus thin enough for your body to cough or sneeze it away.

Capsaicin is actually a fairly common medicinal treatment, although you’ll usually find it in anti-inflammatory medicine.

Honey and lemon

If a sore throat is your most troublesome symptom, honey and lemon is the way to go. It won’t necessarily speed up your recovery, but you’ll feel a lot less miserable now that your throat doesn’t feel like sandpaper!

Avoid the packets of lozenges you see in shops, as these are packed full of sugar. Instead, try our homemade honey, lemon and ginger tea, packed full of natural ingredients and an added dose of steam to help clear your airways.


Get some restWhen all’s said and done, resting is one of the best ways to help your body shake off a cold.

As tiredness is a symptom of a cold, going about your usual routine is only going to make this worse.

Our Digital Health Report revealed that 88 per cent of British workers were reluctant to take time off work if they had an illness.

For the sake of you and your colleagues, it’s best that you stay home.

You’re not at your best if you have a cold, so you’re unlikely to produce your best work. On top of that, you’re potentially spreading a contagious virus around the office, something no one is going to thank you for!

However, taking time off is easier said than done. Our survey also found that 24 per cent of workers felt pressurised by senior staff to come to work even if they were ill.

Still can't get rid of your cold?

Most colds will go away in around 7-10 days. If your symptoms last longer than this or you’re feeling particularly ill, hit the button below to find out more about how we can help.

If you need to see a doctor as soon as possible, you can book an online appointment with Push Doctor 7 days a week. Our GPs can see you during your lunch break or in the evening, so there's no interruption to your day.

Find out moreSee a doctor

Topics: Health and Wellbeing