How to deal with colds

Ben Mann
3 min readSep 12, 2017

I caught a cold this week, but talking to me today, you probably wouldn’t know it. That’s because this morning I took four different drugs to whack-a-mole my symptoms away.

My parents (who happen to be doctors) taught me that I shouldn’t have to suffer when I’m sick as long as I’m okay trading that suffering for the side effects of the right medication. Over the years, I’ve tested that tradeoff and have found a few favorites I’d like to share, none of which need a prescription. Most of them were discovered in the mid 20th century, so why don’t more people take them? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it’s just lack of exposure.

DISCLAIMER I’m not a doctor, and none of the content here should be construed as medical advice. Please consult a physician if you’re really sick and/or proceed at your own risk. If you’re sick for more than two weeks please see a doctor.

  • Stuffy nose: pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), oxymetazoline (Afrin)
  • Sinus headache: pseudoephedrine, acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Cough: guaifenesin (Mucinex), dextromethorphan (Robitussin)
  • Nausea: pepto bismol, metamucil (make sure to drink enough water!)
  • General: cardio exercise, flu shot, sleep

Being sick is an order of magnitude less bad when you can breathe through your nose. Oxymetazoline nasal spray is my oldest trick. There was a roughly 1 year period where I was addicted to it and didn’t realize, but you can avoid that if you make sure to use it for no more than three days at a time. The first time Ariel Liu tried it a few months ago she said it was a revelation. But oxymetazoline doesn’t get deep into your sinuses, so sometimes when you have both a stuffy nose and sinus pressure you need both it and pseudoephedrine.

Using something to unblock your nose doesn’t just feel good, it can also prevent ear infections. When your sinuses are clogged your ears can’t drain through your eustachian tubes.

Often when I have a cough, my first inclination is to try to suppress it or make it feel better with cough drops, which purposely aren’t on the list. It’s much more effective to loosen the mucus with an expectorant like guaifenesin, which stops the urge to cough earlier in the causal chain.

A few years ago, I was feeling really sick but decided to go for a run anyway. My theory was that if fevers increase core temperature to boost immunity, can we artificially induce fever-like core temperatures to shorten cold duration? My research revealed that when you’re healthy, it’s actually quite difficult to perturb your core temperature. Thermoregulation works! The closest I found was studying people in hazmat suits, who overheated very quickly.

Purposely insulating myself seemed too extreme a stress to put my body through so I went running in normal gear. Within the first 10 minutes, my blood redirected from my sinuses into my legs, so my head unclogged. The general sick brain fog dissipated shortly after that, and except for a runny nose I almost didn’t remember I was sick. A while after the run my sickness returned to full force, but since then I’ve continued to run whenever I get sick. Studies suggest that sickness duration is not reduced, but people feel better.

Some things I don’t trust:

  • strong analgesics: too easy to cover up symptoms, get addicted, or replace brain pain with brain fog
  • nyquil/dayquil: I’d rather control the ingredients myself
  • zinc nasal sprays: I completely lost my sense of smell and taste for a week
  • vitamins: not supported by any studies I’ve read
  • bloodletting and magical incantations: too effective

What drugs or practices have you found to work well when you get sick? Do you agree we should medicate when the cost is low?



Ben Mann

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist