Illustration by Marjainez

Ever since junior high, I’ve been an overachiever, an over-scheduler, and a perfectionist, so I’ve always dreaded getting sick. There was always so much to do—tests, essays, theater productions, big games, major plans with friends, and so many deadlines (god forbid I get docked points for handing something in late)—that I couldn’t afford to be slowed down by illness. If anyone so much as sniffled or coughed in my vicinity, I would stare daggers into them, whip out my hand sanitizer, and then avoid them like the plague they were literally carrying. If I were the one to sneeze, or, worse, feel a sore throat (my number-one most guaranteed symptom of a cold) coming on, I went into panic mode: obsessively probing the lymph nodes in my neck for signs of swelling (never mind that all that pushing and prodding created that very symptom), and popping vitamin C and Zicam Cold Remedy tablets like a fiend. I did anything and everything to avoid being laid up and missing all the VERY IMPORTANT STUFF I was convinced was going on all the time, all around me.

Lucky for me, my mom is not just a very wise person, but also an actual nurse, and she taught me that none of my neurotic “prevention techniques” were nearly as effective at minimizing the effects and duration of a cold as simply lying around for a day or three. When I started to look at lolling about doing nothing as a proactive defense against minor illnesses, and not just giving up all my beloved activities, I gave it a chance—and it became, funnily enough, one of my favorite activities of all.

When you’re sick, your body is asking you to stay home, take a break, and rest—so the first thing I’m urging you to do is listen to that message. When you’re not operating on all cylinders, you can’t do your best at school or work or all those extracurriculars anyway. It’s better to just call in or send an email admitting that you’re being attacked by legions of germs, and asking how best to make up the work you’re missing. My mom would add that going to school/work/band practice/whatever and hacking and snotting all over everyone is not just unfair, but also gross.

Another important thing my awesome mom taught me is the concept of preventive sick days, for when you’re in a state that makes you vulnerable to illness—you’re exhausted, sleep-deprived, and feeling run-down. Maybe you aren’t technically sick, but you don’t want to get sick either. Just pretend you already are—in fact, tell people that you are—and take some time off.

While I’m specifically talking about cold treatment and prevention here, the following suggestions can apply to other physical ailments as well. If you have an injury or a chronic illness that’s flaring up or threatening to, rest and relaxation is just as important. No matter what ails you or what ailment you’re trying to prevent, make the most of your sick day. It doesn’t have to be lonely and boring; it can (and should) rejuvenate you.

Here are some tips that have helped me make the most of my sick time:

  • Get (or preferably make someone else get) the remedies of your choice: for a cold, either active or imminent, I prefer the aforementioned Zicam and vitamin C. I used to be obsessed with Airborne too, but due to my cold-prevention obsession, I got burned out on all the flavors and eventually found drinking the weird effervescent fruity liquid a bit gag-inducing. If it works for you, though, use it.
  • Since you’re at home, though, you don’t have to take all the stuff that makes you stop sneezing and coughing, unless it’s really annoying you. Otherwise, just arm yourself with Kleenex (I recommend the kind with lotion to save your poor little nose) and let that grossness work its way out of your body. Get/request some good magazines while you’re stocking up on your remedies, too. You’ll want those later.
  • Once you’re fully stocked and medicated, SLEEP. Whether you are sick or trying to prevent an illness, sleep is the best medicine, and if you are constantly going-going-going, chances are you don’t get enough of it. Spend as much time as you possibly can during your sick day(s) asleep. You may have some crazy fever dreams, but just roll with them.
  • I’m gonna sound like a mom here, but, as proven in my case, sometimes moms are right: drink a lot of water, tea, and other liquid substances. Staying hydrated is important no matter what, but especially when you have a fever, have diarrhea, or are vomiting—in all of those cases your body is relinquishing lots of fluids, which can muck up your bodily operating system (including the part that controls your temperature). In addition to plain old water, I recommend Traditional Medicinals tea. They have a seasonal sampler that includes remedies for all your symptoms (though their Gypsy Cold Care is a good catch-all). Add a lot of honey to make your throat feel better. Juice is fine, and I love those bottled fruit smoothies, but know that a lot of juices have more sugar than vitamins, so read the label carefully if you’re looking for something to get you healthy again and not just something to satisfy a craving (nothing wrong with that, either, though). If you want maximum healing, fresh-squeezed orange juice is a good bet; for zinc (which is also good for colds), eat some yogurt, cashews, and/or almonds. If you also want maximum efficiency, or your stomach is too upset to eat very much, take vitamin C and zinc supplements. Finally, Nurse Mom says hot liquids are best when you’re sick. “They open your sinuses, help the mucus drain, and soothe your membranes.” (That is an actual quote, hence words like membrane…)
  • Eat what appeals to you. Feeling better is partially mental, so eat what you crave when you’re sick, especially if you’re nauseated and the list of things that won’t make you puke is short. Chicken soup is what everyone recommends, and it’s got that good hot-liquid thing going for it, but I never want chicken soup when I’m sick (or rather Amy’s No Chicken Noodle Soup, since I’m veg). Instead I always crave Vietnamese pho, or Thai tom yum or tom kha kai. These soups tend to be on the spicy side (awesome for sinus clearing) and contain garlic and ginger, which natural-health practitioners say are good for fighting colds. (This hasn’t been proven scientifically, but I’ll try anything if it won’t hurt me and I like how it tastes.) Dishes that have no purported healing properties whatsoever, but are your personal comfort foods, are also important during your convalescence. Mashed potatoes is my go-to comfort item; lots of my friends swear by cold pizza. Also: candy! Candy is medicine. (And if you have a stomach flu, my mom recommends ice chips and mint tea rather than water, because they tend to be easier to keep down. Also: dry toast, canned fruit.)