Sorry, but the Whole Concept of “Sweating Out a Cold” Is Total BS

Photo: Getty Images / Paul Bradbury
Things you never thought would make a comeback but did: low-rise jeans, Roseanne, and spring colds. (Oh, you thought colds were only a winter thing? Guess again.) There's just something that much worse about having to stay inside when it's nice out—planting the seeds for a person (definitely not me!) searching desperately various ways to kick their sniffles to the curb so they can still make it to outdoor brunch. Enter: the rumor that you can actually “sweat out a cold.”

There's a biological reason why colds make you feel like garbage. “When viruses infect, they invade normal cells throughout your body and use those cells to replicate. This can kill, damage, or change the cells and make you feel sick,” explains Elizabeth Targan, MD, primary care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. What happens next is that you might get a fever—yep, even with a cold, but it’s typically a low-grade fever—which is your body’s way of supercharging your immune system to fight off the virus. (It also helps hinder the virus’ ability to replicate, says Dr. Targan.) When you have a fever, your core temp rises, and you sweat.

That’s why there’s all this chatter about “sweating out” a cold. If fevers are actually helpful, proponents claim, then on could theoretically shake off their illness faster by heating up the body through other means (like exercise or stepping into a sauna).

The reality is a bit of a bummer: “There has not been robust data to support this,” says Dr. Targan. Despite what some wellness IGers might have you believe, “sweat doesn’t have viral detoxifying superpowers,” she says. Your sweat, she explains, is made up of water, trace amounts of minerals, lactic acid, and urea—but not the virus.

Is getting hot and sweaty while you're sick a bad thing?

Not necessarily—provided that you just have a cold. “Mild to moderate, low-impact exercise for 30 to 45 minutes gives the body an immune and metabolic boost, and helps the body fight off infection,” says Dr. Targan. Plus, a bit of movement followed by a hot shower can help clear up cold-related congestion. Just don't go to the gym while you're sick, she says—you don't want to be that jerk covering the treadmill with cold germs.

However, pushing yourself too hard runs the risk of prolonging your illness. That's why if you have a fever, headache, or muscle and joint pain, Dr. Targan says you should sit this session out and let your body completely rest. Same with vomiting or diarrhea—and if those last two don't clear up within a few days, you should definitely go to the doctor for some help.

Shelling out for a sauna if you have a cold probably isn't worth it, either. Its effectiveness is unclear; a single-blind controlled trial has been done in from 2010 found that sitting in a sauna with a common cold did nada to improve symptoms. So stick to a steamy shower—it's cheaper!

So if you can't sweat out a cold, what do you do to feel better?

Sadly, it's true that there's no cure for the common cold. So forget calling your doc asking for a Z-pack because when it comes to viruses, antibiotics won't really do anything for you. (Seriously, don’t do this. Taking antibiotics when not needed encourages antibiotic resistance.) But you can do a few things to find relief while you wait out your cold:

1. Try OTC treatments: Dr. Targan says that OTC antihistamines and combination antihistamine/ decongestants may help alleviate sneezing, coughing, and congestion. (Though they come with side effects, like drowsiness in the case of first-generation antihistamine medications.) You may also try a decongestant nasal spray but use it for no more than three days, she says.

2. Sleep: The fantastic thing about colds is that they know just the right time to sideline you—like right before that big work presentation. Still, if you can, prioritize rest. Sleep helps your body fight the virus, says Dr. Targan. Aim for eight hours.

3. Hydrate: You won’t be able to taste wine anyway with all that congestion. (Joking.) But, listen, getting enough liquids through water, broth, and tea is important for various reasons, says Dr. Targan. “It helps your body fight off the infection, replenish fluid lost through fever, and loosens mucus,” she says. Sipping warm liquids also soothes the throat.

4. Slurp soup: Yes, it tastes good, feels good on your scratchy throat, and reminds you of mom when she took care of you when you were little. But the soup may also bolster the activity of immune cells so you can kick an infection faster. Dr. Targan also notes that there’s limited research that shows the soup can help clear mucous from nasal passages. Even if it doesn’t “work,” she says, it’s still pretty tasty. And, really, resting and eating soup sounds way better than hanging in a sauna to sweat out a cold.

Instead of sweating out a cold, try some of these natural cold and flu remedies. And here's how to tell the difference between a cold and seasonal allergies. 

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