Common cold

A cold is a mild viral infection. The main symptoms include a sore throat, a cough and a runny or blocked nose.

Information written and reviewed by Certified Doctors.

Contents

Key Information

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What should I do?

If you think you have this condition, you may not need to see a doctor.

How is it diagnosed?

You might be able to diagnose a common cold yourself. Typical symptoms are feeling generally unwell, tiredness, runny nose, high temperature (fever) and cough.

What is the treatment?

Your body should get rid of the infection on its own, so treatment simply aims to control the symptoms. Non-prescription painkillers are recommended for pain and fever.

It is important you take plenty of fluids to keep hydrated while you have a cold.

When to worry?

If you develop any of the following symptoms then you should see a doctor immediately:

  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood-stained mucus
  • breathing difficulties.

If you think you have a cold and any of the following apply then you should see a doctor within 48 hours:

  • your symptoms have continued for more than three weeks
  • your symptoms get worse
  • you are over 65 years old
  • you have a weakened immune system e.g. because of chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • you have a long-term medical condition such as diabetes.

Introduction

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A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It's very common and usually clears up on its own within a week or two.

The main symptoms of a cold include:

More severe symptoms, including a high temperature (fever), headache and aching muscles can also occur, although these tend to be associated more with flu .

Read more about the symptoms of a cold .

What to do

There's no cure for a cold, but you can look after yourself at home by:

  • resting, drinking plenty of fluids and eating healthily
  • taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen , to reduce any fever or discomfort
  • using decongestant sprays or tablets to relieve a blocked nose
  • trying remedies such as gargling salt water and sucking on menthol sweets

Many painkillers and decongestants are available from pharmacies without a prescription. They're generally safe for older children and adults to take, but might not be suitable for babies, young children, pregnant women, people with certain underlying health conditions, and those taking certain other medications. Speak to a pharmacist if you're unsure.

Read more about treating colds and colds in younger children .

When to see your doctor

If you or your child has a cold, there's usually no need to see your doctor as it should clear within a week or two.

You only really need to contact your doctor if:

  • your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • you have breathing difficulties
  • you develop complications of a cold , such as chest pain or coughing up bloodstained mucus

It might also be a good idea to see your doctor if you're concerned about your baby or an elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness such as a lung condition.

How do colds spread?

In general, a person becomes contagious from a few days before their symptoms begin until all of their symptoms have gone. This means most people will be infectious for around two weeks.

You can catch the virus from an infectious person by:

  • touching an object or surface contaminated by infected droplets and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes
  • touching the skin of someone who has the infected droplets on their skin and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes
  • inhaling tiny droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus – these are launched into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes

Colds spread most easily among groups of people in constant close contact, such as families and children in school or day care facilities. They're also more frequent during the winter, although it's not clear exactly why.

A number of different viruses can cause a cold, so it's possible to have several colds one after the other, as each one may be caused by a different virus.

How can I stop a cold spreading?

You can take some simple steps to help prevent the spread of a cold. For example:

  • wash your hands regularly , particularly before touching your nose or mouth and before handling food
  • always sneeze and cough into tissues – this will help prevent the virus-containing droplets from your nose and mouth entering the air, where they can infect others; you should throw away used tissues immediately and wash your hands
  • clean surfaces regularly to keep them free of germs
  • use your own cup, plates, cutlery and kitchen utensils
  • don't share towels or toys with someone who has a cold

It's been suggested that vitamin C , zinc and garlic supplements may help reduce your risk of getting a cold, but there's currently not enough strong evidence to support this.

Read more about preventing colds and flu.

Symptoms of a cold

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The symptoms of a cold usually develop within a few days of becoming infected.

The main symptoms include:

  • a sore throat
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • a cough
  • a hoarse voice
  • generally feeling unwell

Less common symptoms of a cold include:

  • a high temperature (fever) – this is usually about 37-39C (98.6-102.2F)
  • a headache
  • earache – severe earache may be a sign of a middle ear infection
  • muscle pain
  • loss of taste and smell
  • mild irritation of your eyes
  • a feeling of pressure in your ears and face

The symptoms are usually at their worst during the first two to three days, before they gradually start to improve. In adults and older children, they usually last about 7 to 10 days, but can last longer. A cough in particular can last for two or three weeks.

Colds tend to last longer in younger children who are under five, typically lasting around 10 to 14 days. Read more about colds in children .

Is it a cold or flu?

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if you have a cold or something potentially more serious such as flu , as the symptoms can be quite similar. The main differences are:

Flu symptoms

  • come on quickly
  • usually include a headache, fever and aching muscles
  • make you feel too unwell to continue your usual activities

Cold symptoms

  • come on gradually
  • mainly affect your nose and throat
  • are fairly mild, so you can still get around and are usually well enough to go to work

When to visit your doctor

Colds are generally mild and shortlived, so there's usually no need to see your doctor if you think you have one. You should just rest at home and use painkillers and other remedies to relieve your symptoms until you're feeling better.

Read more about treating a cold .

Speak to a pharmacist if you want advice about treating a cold at home. You only really need to see your doctor if:

  • your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • you have breathing difficulties
  • you develop symptoms of complications of a cold , such as chest pain or coughing up bloodstained mucus

It might also be a good idea to see your doctor if you're concerned about your baby or an elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness such as a lung condition.

How to treat a cold

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You can manage cold symptoms yourself by following some simple advice . You'll normally start to feel better within 7 to 10 days.

General advice

Until you're feeling better, it may help to:

  • drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost from sweating and having a runny nose
  • get plenty of rest
  • eat healthily – a low-fat, high-fibre diet is recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables

You may lose your appetite when you have a cold. This is perfectly normal and should only last a few days. Don't force yourself to eat if you're not feeling hungry.

You may also wish to try some of the medications and remedies described below to help relieve your symptoms.

Over-the-counter cold medications

The main medications used to treat cold symptoms are:

  • painkillers – such as paracetamol and ibuprofen , which can help relieve aches and a high temperature (fever)
  • decongestants – which may help relieve a blocked nose
  • cold medicines – containing a combination of painkillers and decongestants

These medications are available from pharmacies without a prescription. They're generally safe for older children and adults to take, but might not be suitable for babies, young children, pregnant women, people with certain underlying health conditions, and people taking certain other medications.

Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine before taking it, and follow the recommended dosage instructions. If you're not sure which treatments are suitable for you or your child, speak to a pharmacist for advice.

More information about over-the-counter cold medicines is provided below.

Painkillers

Paracetamol and ibuprofen can help reduce a fever and also act as painkillers. Aspirin may also help, but it isn't normally recommended for a cold and should never be given to children under the age of 16.

If your child has a cold, look for age-appropriate versions of paracetamol and ibuprofen (usually in liquid form). Always follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure the correct dose is given.

Taking both ibuprofen and paracetamol at the same time is not usually necessary for a cold and should be avoided in children as using both together may be unsafe.

Read more about giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen are also included in some cold medicines. If you're taking painkillers and want to also take a cold medicine, check the patient information leaflet first or ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice to avoid exceeding the recommended dose.

If you're pregnant, paracetamol is the preferred choice to treat mild to moderate pain and fever.

Read more about taking paracetamol during pregnancy and taking ibuprofen during pregnancy.

Decongestants

Decongestants can be taken by mouth (oral decongestants), or as drops or a spray into your nose (nasal decongestants). They can help make breathing easier by reducing the swelling inside your nose.

However, they're generally only effective for a short period and they can make your blocked nose worse if they're used for more than a week.

Decongestants are not recommended for children under six years old and children under 12 years old shouldn't take them unless advised by a pharmacist or doctor. They're also not suitable for people with certain underlying conditions and those taking certain medications.

Read more about who can use decongestant medication .

Other remedies

The remedies outlined below may also help relieve your symptoms.

Gargling and menthol sweets

Some people find gargling with salt water and sucking on menthol sweets can help relieve a sore throat and blocked nose.

Vapour rubs

Vapour rubs can help babies and young children breathe more easily when they have a cold. Apply the rub to your child's chest and back. Don't apply it to their nostrils because this could cause irritation and breathing difficulties.

Nasal saline drops

Nasal saline (salt water) drops can help relieve a blocked nose in babies and young children.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

There is some evidence to suggest that taking zinc supplements within a day of the symptoms starting will speed up recovery from a cold and reduce the severity of symptoms.

However, there is currently little evidence to suggest that taking vitamin C supplements is beneficial when a cold starts.

Treatments not recommended

The following treatments aren't usually recommended to treat colds because there isn't strong evidence to suggest they're effective, and they may cause unpleasant side effects:

  • antihistamines
  • cough treatments or syrups
  • antibiotics – these are only effective against bacteria (colds are caused by viruses)
  • complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments such as echinacea and Chinese herbal medicines

Complications of colds

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Colds usually clear up without causing any further problems. However, the infection can sometimes spread to your chest, ears or sinuses.

Sinusitis

Sinusitis is an infection of the small air-filled cavities inside the cheekbones and forehead. It develops in up to 1 in every 50 adults and older children who have a cold.

Symptoms of sinusitis include:

  • pain and tenderness around your nose, eyes and forehead (sinus headache)
  • a blocked and runny nose
  • a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above

In most cases, the symptoms of sinusitis will resolve without the need for treatment. See your doctor if your symptoms don't improve after a week or they're getting worse.

Middle ear infection (otitis media)

A middle ear infection (otitis media) develops in an estimated one in every five children under the age of five with a cold.

Symptoms of a middle ear infection include:

  • severe earache
  • a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • flu -like symptoms, such as vomiting and a lack of energy
  • some loss of hearing

Most middle ear infections will resolve without treatment within a few days. Treatment is usually only required if your child has repeated middle ear infections.

Chest infection

A chest infection such as bronchitis and pneumonia can occur after a cold, as your immune system is temporarily weakened.

Symptoms of a chest infection include a persistent cough , bringing up phlegm (mucus), and shortness of breath .

Minor chest infections will resolve in a few weeks without specific treatment, but you should see your doctor if:

  • your cough is severe
  • you have a persistent high temperature
  • you become confused or disorientated
  • you have a sharp pain in your chest
  • you cough up bloodstained phlegm
  • your symptoms last longer than three weeks

In these cases, you could have a bacterial infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics .

Colds in children

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Young children get colds quite often because their immune system is still developing.

It can be worrying when your child gets a cold, but it's not usually serious and normally passes within two weeks.

Below are the answers to some commonly asked questions about colds in children.

Is my child's cold serious?

Colds aren't usually serious, although young children are at an increased risk of developing further problems, such as ear infections .

Very occasionally, more serious problems such as pneumonia can develop, so it's important to keep a close eye on your child.

Read more about spotting signs of serious illness in children .

What is the difference between adult and child colds?

Children tend to get colds far more often than adults.

The symptoms are generally similar in adults and children, including a blocked or runny nose, sneezing and a high temperature (fever).

Most colds in children get better on their own without treatment, although they may take a little bit longer to recover than an adult would.

Sometimes it may seem as though you child has had a cold for a very long time, when in fact they've had several different minor infections with a short recovery time in between.

When should I see a doctor?

You should seek medical advice if:

  • your child is under three months old and has a temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above, or is between three and six months old and has a temperature of 39C (102.2F) or above
  • their symptoms last more than three weeks
  • they seem to be getting worse rather than better
  • they have chest pain or are coughing up bloodstained phlegm – this could be a sign of a bacterial chest infection that needs treatment with antibiotics
  • they're finding it difficult to breathe – seek medical help immediately from your doctor surgery or local hospital
  • they have, or seem to have, severe earache (babies with earache often rub their ears and seem irritable) as they could have an ear infection that may need antibiotic treatment
  • they have a persistent or severely sore throat – they may have bacterial tonsillitis , which needs antibiotic treatment
  • they develop any other worrying symptoms

Why won't my doctor prescribe antibiotics?

Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses, so do not respond to antibiotics.

The overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance , where bacterial infections become less easily treatable.

Your doctor is likely to prescribe antibiotics only if your child has developed a bacterial infection in addition to their cold.

What can I do to help my child?

The following tips may help your child cope with the symptoms of a cold:

  • encourage your child to rest and make sure they drink plenty of fluids – water is fine, but warm drinks can be soothing
  • if they have a blocked nose, you can make their breathing easier by raising the pillow end of your child's bed or cot by putting books or bricks under the legs, or placing a pillow under the mattress (although you shouldn't put anything under the mattress of a baby younger than one year old)
  • liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen can help ease a fever and discomfort – check the dosage instructions on the packaging and never give aspirin to children under the age of 16
  • a warm, moist atmosphere can ease breathing if your child has a blocked nose – take your child into the bathroom and run a hot bath or shower, or use a vaporiser to humidify the air
  • keep the room aired and at a comfortable temperature, and don't let your child get too hot – cover them with a lightweight sheet, for example

Speak to your pharmacist or doctor for advice if you're not sure how to look after your child or what medications are suitable for them to take.

More advice and information

You can find more detailed information and advice about looking after your child in the NHS Choices pregnancy and baby guide .

Your.MD Local Advice (Philippines)

If you are concerned about Common cold you should always contact emergency services by calling 911, call the Redcross Hotline on 143 or visit a Health Centre, nurse or doctor. The Filipino Department of Health has an online list hospital and health centre addresses.

Content supplied by NHS Choices