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Common cold

Symptoms of a cold

The first symptom of a cold is usually a sore throat. This is generally followed by sneezing or a blocked, sore or runny nose. Usually, 1 in 3 people with a cold will get a cough and feel unwell.

Colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses. Instead, drink plenty of liquids to replace those lost from sweating and runny noses. Get lots of rest and eat healthily. Do not ask your GP for antibiotics for a cold.

You will usually feel worse during the first 2 to 3 days before gradually starting to improve. Your symptoms will usually last about a week.

Cold and flu symptoms are similar but flu tends to be more severe.

Cold

  • Appears gradually
  • Affects mainly your nose and throat
  • Makes you feel unwell but you're OK to carry on as normal - for example, go to work

Flu

  • Appears quickly within a few hours
  • Affects more than just your nose and throat
  • Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal

Cold symptoms can include:

  • blocked or runny nose
  • sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • coughs
  • sneezing
  • a raised temperature
  • pressure in your ears and face
  • loss of taste and smell

The symptoms are the same in adults and children. Sometimes, symptoms last longer in children.

Causes of colds

Colds are caused by viruses. They can easily spread to other people. You're infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes about a week.

Colds are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.

To reduce the risk of spreading a cold you should:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • cough into your elbow to stop germs getting on to your hands and spreading to other people
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible

How to prevent catching a cold

The best ways to avoid catching a cold are:

  • washing your hands with warm water and soap, especially before eating
  • not sharing towels or household items, like cups, with someone who has a cold
  • not touching your eyes or nose. You can infect your body if you've come into contact with the virus.
  • staying fit and healthy

The flu vaccine helps prevent flu but not colds.

Related topic

How to wash your hands correctly

Treatment

Most colds can be treated at home. They will get better by themselves without any specific treatment. Drink plenty of liquids, get lots of rest and eat healthily. Resume your normal activities when you feel well enough.

Talk to your pharmacist about products and medications that will help. Paracetamol or ibuprofen will relieve pain or a fever. Nasal saline sprays will help to clear a blocked nose. Over-the-counter throat sprays, lozenges and cough remedies may also help.

Be careful taking cough and cold medicines if you’re also taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets. This is because it’s easy to take more than the recommended dose.

Some medicines are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women.Check with your pharmacist.

There’s little evidence that supplements such as vitamin c, zinc, echinacea or garlic prevent colds or speed up recovery.

Only see a GP if :

  • your symptoms don't improve after 3 weeks
  • you're finding it hard to breathe or develop chest pain
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • you're concerned about your child's symptoms
  • you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • you have a weak immune system – for example, if you have diabetes or you're having chemotherapy

Antibiotics

Antibiotics won't relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. Colds are caused by viruses.

page last reviewed: 13/06/2019
next review due: 13/06/2022