A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It can cause a blocked nose followed by a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough.
In adults and older children, the cold will usually last for about a week as the body fights off the infection. Colds in younger children can last up to two weeks.
There is no cure for a cold, although you can usually relieve the symptoms of a cold at home by taking over-the-counter medication, such as paracetamol, and drinking plenty of fluids.
When to see a GP
You only really need to see your GP if:
your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
you have a high temperature (fever) of 39°C (102.2°F) or above
you cough up blood-stained phlegm (thick mucus)
you feel chest pain
you have breathing difficulties
you experience severe swelling of your lymph nodes (glands) in your neck and/or armpits
See your GP if you're concerned about your baby, an elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness, such as a chest condition.
Tests may be needed to rule out a more serious infection such as pneumonia (a bacterial infection of the lungs) or glandular fever (a viral infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus).
What causes a cold?
Colds are caused by viruses which attack the lining of the nose and throat, inflaming these areas. As they become inflamed, they begin to produce more mucus, resulting in a runny nose and sneezing.
More than 200 types of virus can cause a cold. Those most responsible for colds belong to one of two groups, rhinoviruses and coronaviruses.
Because a number of viruses can cause a cold, it's possible to have several colds, one after the other, as each one is caused by a different virus.
How does a cold spread?
A cold can be spread through:
direct contact – if you sneeze or cough, tiny droplets of fluid containing the cold virus are launched into the air and can be breathed in by others
indirect contact – if you sneeze onto a door handle and someone else touches the handle a few minutes later, they may catch the cold virus if they then touch their mouth or nose
In general, a person first becomes contagious two to three days before their symptoms begin, and they remain contagious until all their symptoms have gone. So most people will be contagious for around two weeks.
How can I prevent a cold spreading?
You can take steps to help prevent the spread of a cold. For example:
wash your hands regularly and properly, particularly after touching your nose or mouth and before handling food
always sneeze and cough into tissues as this will help to prevent the virus-containing droplets from your nose and mouth entering the air where they can infect others; 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
use disposable paper towels to dry your hands and face, rather than shared towels. As with tissues, always dispose of the paper towels after you have finished using them
Symptoms of a common cold
The first symptom of a cold is usually a sore or irritated throat.
This is then followed by other symptoms, including:
a blocked nose (nasal congestion) – caused by a build up of phlegm or mucus (catarrh)
nasal pain and irritation
a runny nose (nasal discharge) – the discharge is usually clear and runny at first before becoming thicker and darker over the course of the infection
coughing – this symptom occurs in one out of every three cases
a hoarse voice
a general sense of feeling unwell
Less common symptoms of a cold include:
a usually mild temperature (fever) of around 38–39°C (100.4–102.2°F)
earache – severe earache may be a sign of a middle ear infection (otitis media)
loss of taste and smell
mild irritation of your eyes
a feeling of pressure in your ears and face
The symptoms of a cold are usually at their worst during the first two to three days of the infection before they gradually start to improve. In adults and older children, the cold usually lasts for about a week. However, if you or your child has a cough, it may last for up to three weeks.
Colds tend to last longer in younger children who are under five. Their symptoms typically last from 10–14 days.
Treating a common cold
You should be able to treat cold symptoms yourself by trying over-the-counter cold medications and following some simple advice.
Over-the-counter cold medications
In the UK, over-the-counter cold medicines are probably the most widely used type of medication.
Painkillerssuch as ibuprofen, paracetamol and aspirin – which are the only type of medication known to be effective in treating colds. Children under 16 years old or breastfeeding women should not take aspirin.
Decongestants (medications designed to reduce nasal congestion) – may have limited effectiveness against colds. However, don't use them for more than seven days because overuse can make the symptoms of congestion worse. Children under six years old should not use decongestants.
Most over-the-counter cold medications aren't suitable for children under six years old. If your child is unwell, talk to your pharmacist about the best option.
Many of these medications contain a combination of different medicines; typically a painkiller, such as paracetamol, and a decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine.
If you have recently taken a cold medication, it may not be safe for you to take an additional painkiller. Read the manufacturer’s patient information leaflet carefully before taking the medication, and follow the recommended dosage instructions.
More information about specific over-the-counter cold medicines is provided below.
Decongestants can be taken by mouth (oral decongestants) or as a spray in your nose (nasal decongestants). They work by reducing the swelling in the passageways of your nose and may also help ease breathing.
There's limited evidence to show how effective decongestants are. They may only help some people and often only ease symptoms for a short period of time.
Decongestants are safe and rarely cause serious side effects. Although, if you use them frequently or for a long time, your congestion may end up getting worse.
Decongestants are not recommended for children under six years old and children under 12 years old shouldn't take them unless advised by a GP.
Oral decongestants can make you feel more alert and may cause problems sleeping at night.
Oral decongestants may interact with some antidepressants and beta-blockers so if you're taking these medicines, check with your GP or pharmacist before taking oral decongestants. Also check if you have high blood pressure, heart problems or glaucoma.
Nasal decongestants work specifically on the nose. They're usually safe for adults and older children to use. They are available as nose drops or sprays.
Nasal decongestants shouldn't be used for more than seven days because using them for longer can actually make your congestion worse. If you're taking a type of antidepressant called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), you shouldn't use nasal decongestants.
Paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin can help reduce a fever and also act as painkillers. Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16 and look for age-appropriate versions of paracetamol and ibruprofen (usually in liquid form). Always follow manufacturer's instructions to ensure the correct dose is given.
Children must not be given both ibuprofen and paracetamol unless directed by a qualified medical professional – use one or the other. Using both could cause adverse side effects. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin are also included in some cold medicines with other ingredients. Check with your pharmacist or GP before taking a cold remedy if you're taking any other painkillers.
If you're pregnant, paracetamol – not ibuprofen – is the preferred choice to treat mild to moderate pain and fever.
Taking zinc syrup, tablets or lozenges may be an effective treatment for the common cold.
A 2015 Cochrane review suggests that taking zinc supplements within a day of the symptoms starting will speed up recovery and lessen the severity of symptoms.
However, long-term use of zinc isn't recommended as it could cause side effects such as vomiting and diarrhoea.
More research is required to determine the recommended dose.
The below advice should also help:
Drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost due to sweating and a runny nose.
Get plenty of rest – there's no official guidance as to how long a person should stay off work or school. Most people know when they're fit enough to return to normal activities.
Eat healthily: a low-fat, high-fibre diet is recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (five portions a day).
Many children lose their appetite when they have a cold. This is perfectly normal and should only last a few days. It's recommended children with a cold only eat when they're hungry.
The remedies outlined below may also help relieve your symptoms.
Steam inhalation involves sitting with your head over a bowl of hot water. Place a towel over your head, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Avoid getting the hot steam in your eyes.
The steam may help ease your congestion by loosening mucus and making it easier to clear by blowing your nose. Adding menthol, eucalyptus, camphor, thymol or pine oil to the water may help clear the passageways in your nose.
Steam inhalation is not advised for children because of the risk of scalding. Instead, it might help a child if they sit in a hot, steamy bathroom.
Gargling with salt water can sometimes help relieve the symptoms of a sore throat and nasal congestion.
Vapour rubs can help soothe the symptoms of a cold in babies and young children. Apply the rub to your child’s chest and back. Don't apply it to their nostrils because this could cause pain and breathing difficulties.
Some people find sucking a menthol sweet can help relieve a sore throat.
Nasal saline drops
Nasal saline drops or sprays can help relieve the symptoms of nasal congestion in babies and young children. Nasal saline drops contain salt water so they're thought to work in the same way as gargling salt, but they're often better tolerated in babies and young children.
Nasal saline drops or sprays are available from most pharmacists.
Complications of a common cold
Colds don't usually cause complications. However, the infection can sometimes move to your chest, ears or sinuses.
Sinusitis is an infection of the small, air-filled cavities inside the cheekbones and forehead. It develops in up to 2% of adults and older children with colds.
Symptoms of sinusitis include:
pain and tenderness around your nose, eyes and forehead
a blocked and runny nose
In most cases, the symptoms of sinusitis will resolve without the need for treatment.
Middle ear infection (otitis media)
A middle ear infection (otitis media) develops in an estimated 20% of children under five years old with a cold.
Symptoms of a middle ear infection include:
a high temperature (fever) of or above 38°C (100°F)
flu-like symptoms, such as vomiting and lethargy (a lack of energy)
some loss of hearing
Approximately 80% of middle ear infections will resolve themselves without treatment, usually within three days.
Additional treatment is usually only required if your child has repeated middle ear infections.
A chest infection can occur after a cold, as your immune system is lowered. There are two main types of chest infection:
bronchitis – which usually resolves itself without treatment after a few weeks
pneumonia – which is rarer, but causes more serious symptoms
Symptoms of a chest infection include a persistent cough, bringing up phlegm (mucus) and breathlessness.
You should see your GP if you experience any of the following symptoms:
a high temperature (this is usually a sign of a more serious type of infection)
confusion or disorientation
a sharp pain in your chest
coughing up blood-stained phlegm (thick mucus)
your symptoms last longer than three weeks
Common cold in children
A cold is a viral infection that affects the nose, throat and sinuses. While adults usually have two to four colds a year, children can catch as many as seven to 10.
Dr Rob Hicks, a GP in London, offers his advice on caring for children with colds.
Is my child’s cold serious?
Colds aren't usually serious. However, babies, the elderly and anyone whose immune system is compromised can be at risk of developing more serious complications, such as a bacterial chest infection.
What are the differences between adult and child colds?
Children contract colds far more often than adults. Cold symptoms in a child may include a raised temperature (fever).
When should I take my child to the doctor?
Most colds get better on their own without treatment. Seek medical advice if:
a baby aged less than three months develops a fever higher than 38°C
cold symptoms last for more than 10 days, particularly if your child is coughing up green, yellow or brown sputum or has a fever – this could be a sign of a bacterial infection that needs treatment with antibiotics
your child is finding it difficult to breathe – seek medical help immediately from your surgery or local hospital
your child complains of pain in the nasal passages after two to four days of home treatment
your baby or child has, or seems 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
your child complains of throat pain for longer than three or four days, or their throat pain seems unusually severe, as they may have bacterial tonsillitis that needs antibiotic treatment
your child develops other symptoms such as pain or swelling in the face or in the chest, a headache or a very bad sore throat
your child seems to be getting worse rather than better
Why won’t my doctor prescribe antibiotics for my child’s cold?
Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Colds, however, are caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics.
The overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance where symptoms don’t respond to treatment with antibiotics. The doctor is likely to prescribe antibiotics only if your child has developed a bacterial infection secondary to (on top of) a cold.
Top tips for parents
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 should not put anything under the mattress of a baby younger than one year old)
paracetamol liquid or ibuprofen liquid can help ease a fever and pain – check the dosage instructions on the packaging and never give aspirin to children under 16 years old
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 – if a small child or baby has a temperature let them wear just a nappy or underwear
Advice and information
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