A common health “fact” passed around is that you can sweat out a cold. But where does this fall on the myth-vs.-fact scale? Can you really sweat out a cold? Can you sweat out a virus?
In this article, we will aim to assess whether it’s an old wives’ tale or a valid suggestion that you can sweat out a virus by answering the question, “Can you sweat out a cold?”
More specifically, we will cover:
- Does Sweating Help a Cold?
- Can You Sweat Out a Cold?
- Is It Safe to Exercise With a Cold?
- How to Get Over a Cold
Let’s get started!
Does Sweating Help a Cold?
The idea that you can sweat out a cold basically hinges on the idea that you can make a cold go away faster if you make your body sweat, whether through exercise, heat exposure, sitting in a sauna, etc.
When the core temperature of the body increases, the body initiates various thermoregulatory mechanics, the primary one being sweating.
The nervous system signals the sweat glands near the surface of the skin to dilate and produce sweat, also known as perspiration.
This mostly aqueous solution gets secreted from the sweat glands onto the surface of the skin.
Excess body heat is then used to evaporate the sweat off of your skin. For this reason, it’s not actually the sweat itself that cools your body but the evaporative cooling process that ultimately dissipates heat and releases excess heat energy, which consequently reduces your body temperature.
Can You Sweat Out a Cold?
As mentioned, sweat is an aqueous solution composed almost entirely of water, with small amounts of certain electrolytes, such as sodium, and trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, and sugar.
But can you sweat out a virus?
The common cold is typically caused by the rhinovirus, which is a type of virus. A virus is a unique entity that isn’t technically a live organism, nor is it a cell. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that a virus can be excreted in sweat.
Although you can’t sweat out a cold directly, or make your cold go away faster by exercising or sweating it out, some of the methods used to increase your body temperature enough to sweat, such as exercise or sitting in a sauna, can temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms and discomfort of having a cold or another virus.
For example, one of the most common and annoying symptoms of the common cold is nasal congestion. Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise outdoors, can often stimulate nasal flow, temporarily reducing nasal congestion while you work out.
Similarly, sitting in a steam room at your gym, another method used to induce sweating, can open up your sinuses and decrease the viscosity of mucus, reducing nasal congestion.
Therefore, in some cases, it can certainly feel like sweating is improving your illness.
However, it’s not actually the fact that you’re sweating that contributes to getting your nose running rather than being stuffed up; instead, it is the physical activity itself or the exposure to warm, moist air, respectively, that loosens up mucus and helps alleviate your symptoms.
Steam rooms, a hot and steamy shower, or exposure to hot steam in other ways have been particularly implicated in the ability to help treat a cold.
However, there’s little evidence to suggest that exposure to hot steam or taking a hot shower can effectively treat a cold or help you get over a cold faster. With that said, taking a hot shower or bath, or sitting in a steam room, is also not liable to make things worse.
A review of six studies found that hot, steamy air exposure neither benefited nor exacerbated the severity of the common cold in subjects who were sick.
Some people also replicate the environment of a steam room on a small scale to treat nasal congestion. This typically involves heating a bowl or pot of water and then sitting at a table over the bowl or pot with a towel draped over your head, doming over you and the water bowl, creating a steam tent.
Then, you hover your face over the bowl and inhale the steam.
Much like a regular steam room or steamy shower, this method can loosen nasal congestion, but be very careful doing this. Getting too close to the water or inhaling steam that is too hot can burn or scald your face or delicate tissues in the mucus membranes in your nose and eyes.
Is It Safe to Exercise With a Cold?
While your workout isn’t likely going to get you to recover faster from a cold, it’s also not usually harmful.
It’s typically fine to exercise with a cold as long as you don’t also have a fever, severe chest congestion, or a bad cough.
Oftentimes, a good rule of thumb when trying to decide if you can exercise when you are sick with a cold or respiratory virus is to consider the following two questions: Do I have a fever? Are the symptoms confined to my neck or above?
If you have a fever, you should not exercise. Your body needs to rest and recover and is already working overtime to try and regulate your body temperature.
Exercise increases body heat, further elevating your core temperature. Therefore, if you already have a fever, it can be dangerous to add additional thermal strain via exercise.
Additionally, exercise is always a physical stressor for the body, and when your immune system is working hard to fight an infection or a virus, you don’t want to further stress the body. Exercising with a fever can exacerbate your illness.
In terms of the location of your symptoms, when your symptoms are confined to your neck or above (sore throat, swollen glands, headache, nasal congestion, running nose, etc.), it’s typically fine to exercise as long as you have the energy to do so and feel okay during your workout.
Make sure you have tissues or a handkerchief with you, though, because most types of physical activity will get your nasal secretions running!
You will also certainly want to listen to your body during your workout; if your symptoms start to get worse or you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or winded, you should slow down or stop.
Moreover, if you exercise with a cold one day and you feel worse the next, you probably should take that as a sign that your body really needs rest. Skip your workouts until you are feeling better.
When cold symptoms are below the neck—such as a deep chest cough, wheezing, or productive sputum from the chest—it’s usually best to skip any sort of vigorous exercise or consult your healthcare provider beforehand.
Gentle exercises like walking, yoga, Pilates, or easy stationary biking workouts are typically fine—again, as long as you are listening to your body and do not feel adverse symptoms once you start exercising.
Most importantly, when you are exercising when you are sick, you should reduce the intensity and duration of your workouts so as not to overtax your body.
Furthermore, it’s extremely important to stay particularly well hydrated before, during, and after your workout and to refuel your body with carbohydrates and protein as soon as possible when you are done. Aim for a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1.
How to Get Over a Cold
In most cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the common cold resolves within 7 to 10 days, as long as it does not escalate to a secondary infection like bronchitis or a sinus infection.
Even if you work up a sweat, whether, through exercise, a steam room, a sauna, or otherwise, it is unlikely that you will reduce the duration of your cold.
The best things you can do to treat a cold or to take care of your body, get extra rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat a nutritious diet with plenty of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, and reduce your stress.
Some nutrients are said to potentially help strengthen your immune system, so they may truncate the duration of a cold. Examples include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and herbs like echinacea.
While you are sick, to help alleviate some of the discomfort from your symptoms, you can gargle with warm salt water for a sore throat, use a humidifier or take a steamy shower to temporarily relieve nasal congestion, suck on throat lozenges, and use warm compresses on your sinuses to loosen up mucus.
Moving your body through light physical activity can help improve circulation and temporarily decrease nasal congestion.
Remember to listen to your body and heed the signals that you need extra rest to recover.
Coming full circle, the advice that you can sweat out a cold is really not rounded in much scientific evidence. The common cold will run its course, typically lasting 7 to 10 days, unaffected by whether or not you work up a sweat.
So maybe sweating can’t completely wipe out your cold, but it does have some benefits. Take a look at what those are in our article: The 7 Benefits of Sweating.