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The question

Should I exercise when I have a cold? Can you really "sweat it out" or am I better off resting?

The answer

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With cold season upon us, this is a very common question that I get asked in my clinic.

Colds are caused by viruses and at this time, there is no known cure and most prescribed and over-the-counter remedies are used mainly for symptomatic relief. Generally, colds last 7-10 days but the post-viral effects like cough and decreased energy, can last up to several weeks after recovery from the acute illness.

It is well known that regular exercise can help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, and there is an increasing amount of research that has confirmed that it can boost the immune system to prevent illnesses like colds.

In general, I suggest to my patients that if their cold symptoms are mild and are 'neck-up', meaning a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat or nasal congestion - proceeding with mild-moderate exercise is safe.

A reduction in intensity of a regular workout routine may need to be done depending on how you feel. If however, symptoms include fever, fatigue, muscle aches or are 'below the neck' which could mean a severe cough, chest congestion or shortness of breath, I recommend resting and holding off on exercise until these symptoms subside.

Exercise is thought to boost the immune system by increasing the body's natural immune fighter cells and by increasing circulation of these cells to detect and ward off bacteria and viruses in the body.

While exercise has not been found to cure or decrease the number of days one may have a cold, it has been found to help improve symptoms such as sinus and nasal congestion and increases the feeling of well-being despite being sick.

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Along the same lines, while 'sweating it out' may help with symptoms of congestion, it does not cure a cold and if done to excess, can dehydrate the body and worsen symptoms - so I would recommend caution with excessive sweating when sick and always ensure proper hydration by increasing your fluid intake.

If you have a lung or heart disease, consult your doctor about recommended exercise limits during illness as these conditions may make your body more sensitive to the effect of exercise.

Regular exercise has immune enhancing effects so when you're well use it as an opportunity to not only general improved health and well-being - but as a preventative measure against coughs and colds. Everyone is different and every body reacts differently to colds and exercise so ultimately this is a personal choice. It is important to listen to your body if you choose to exercise when sick. If your symptoms worsen with physical activity - stop, rest and resume your activities when you feel better.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at doctor@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Wijayasinghe.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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