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Cold

A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It can cause nasal stuffiness, a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough.

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.

Read more information about treating colds.

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. You can also phone NHS 111 for an assessment.

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

Read more information about preventing colds and flu.


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Cold

In most cases, you will be able to treat the symptoms of cold yourself at home by using a number of self-care techniques.

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.

These include:

  • Painkillers such 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

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. Read more about who can use decongestant medication.

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.

Painkillers

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.

Read more information about giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen.

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.

Read more information about:

Zinc supplements

Taking zinc syrup, tablets or lozenges may be an effective treatment for the common cold.

A 2011 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.

Care advice

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

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

Gargling with salt water can sometimes help relieve the symptoms of a sore throat and nasal congestion.

Vapour rubs

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.

Menthol sweets

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.


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Cold

Colds don't usually cause complications. However, the infection can sometimes move to your chest, ears or sinuses.

Colds don't usually cause complications. However, the infection can sometimes move 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 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:

  • severe earache
  • 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.

Chest infection

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

Content Supplied by NHS Choices

Cold

Learn about how to prevent a common cold from spreading, including washing your hands regularly and taking care to sneeze or cough into tissues.

As there are so many different viruses that can cause the common cold, a vaccination against the condition hasn't been developed yet.

However, if you have a cold, there are things you can do to help prevent it from spreading.

You should:

  • 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

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