5 Things Sick People Need to Stop Doing

You’re hacking, sneezing, wheezing — and as a result, you’re desperate for relief, no matter how it comes. So you start playing doctor, convinced you’ll land on something, anything, to make the funk go away a little bit faster. Maybe you get lucky and find a cure for your coughing — or, more likely, you end up prolonging your misery by an unnecessary day or two.

“People don’t understand that colds are self-limiting,” said Veronica Nieto, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Texas A&M. “Our bodies are naturally designed to get rid of infection on their own. With a cold or the flu, we’re just treating symptoms. We’re not getting rid of the actual virus that’s causing it.” 

In other words, nothing you do is going to shoo away the virus faster. But if you’re not careful, the self-prescribed “remedies” below might encourage the symptoms to linger a little longer. 

1. You overload on cold meds.

You pop an antihistamine, but 15 minutes later, you’re still just as miserable. So why not take another? Or maybe add a couple doses of Tylenol to the mix? “People don’t really understand when the drug is supposed to start working,” Nieto told Yahoo Health. “Many of these products take at least 30 minutes to an hour before they start kicking in.” Problem is, sick people are often impatient to feel better — and in their minds, more drugs equals faster relief.  

But what actually happens is this: When you overload on cold meds, you may actually develop a whole new set of symptoms—or exacerbate the ones you already have. For example, if you take an extra dose of a first-generation antihistamine, like Benadryl, you may feel extremely drowsy and lethargic, which isn’t all that different from a cold, defeating the purpose of taking the drug, said Nieto. Another risk: Popping too much acetaminophen, the pain reliever found in many OTC cold medications, may lead to a serious skin reaction, and in the long term, liver damage, she noted. 

2. You blow your nose — hard.

When the snot is flowing, blowing your nose may seem like the obvious —and instant — fix. And, you’re right, it will give you temporary relief. But draining your schnoz may also lead to longer-term trouble. “If you blow your nose vigorously, you will propel the nasal fluid into your sinus cavities,” Dr. Jack Gwaltney, Jr., founder of CommonCold.org, told Yahoo Health. “That fluid may contain bacteria and viruses, which will get into your sinuses and cause an infection.”

If you’re dying for relief from all the dripping, go ahead and blow your nose — just don’t squeeze your nostrils while you do it. That may reduce the amount of fluid that makes its way into your sinuses, Gwaltney explained.

3. You down a pot of coffee and power through the misery.

Playing the martyr accomplishes two things: You make all of your coworkers sick — not to mention mad at you — and probably prolong your own hell. “With the cold and flu, your body needs time to recover,” Nieto said. “Rest and hydration are the best things you could absolutely do. Then treat the symptoms as they become bothersome.”

And no, guzzling a half-gallon of coffee (“It gives me energy!”) doesn’t count. The excess caffeine will actually just dehydrate you, potentially setting you back a few days, warned Nieto — not to mention keep you up all night, sniffling and unable to sleep. 

4. You take leftover antibiotics in your medicine cabinet.

The cold meds aren't cutting it, so what do you do? “Sometimes, people have antibiotics sitting around in their medicine cabinet from a previous illness, so they start taking them,” said Gwaltney. Antibiotics may seem like your doctor’s go-to fix-all — but they actually won’t do you any good if you have a cold or the flu, since they treat bacterial infections, not viruses, he explained.  

And if you do develop a sinus infection, say, along with your cold, self-medicating with leftover antibiotics may prevent your doctor from doing his job. “You probably won’t take enough to do any good,” said Gwaltney. But you just might down a large enough dose to prevent bacterial cultures from revealing the source of your infection. “The antibiotics may suppress [the infection] enough to prevent the cultures from being positive,” he said. The outcome: Doc may not write you a prescription, even though you really could use one.

5. You ignore the directions on your nasal spray.

When nothing but instant relief for a clogged nose will do, decongestant sprays like Afrin are your best bet — but only for a short time. “The blood vessels in your nose are swollen, and therefore take up more space so you can’t breathe,” explained Nieto. “Afrin works directly in the area to decrease swelling.”

But if you ignore the label warning to only use the spray for three days, you’re setting yourself up for something called “rebound congestion.” How’s it happen? With extended exposure, the drug can actually trigger inflammation, so you go back to the swollen state where you started, said Nieto. And when you’re feeling miserable, going two steps forward, three steps back is definitely not the way you want to go.