See all parts of this guide Hide guide parts
- 1. About common cold
- 2. Symptoms of a common cold
- 3. Treating a common cold
- 4. Complications of a common cold
- 5. Colds in children
About common cold
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:
- asore throat
- a blocked or runny nose
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 asparacetamol or ibuprofen, to reduce anyfever or discomfort
- usingdecongestant sprays or tablets to relieve a blocked nose
- trying remedies such asgargling 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 thosetaking certain other medications. Speak to a pharmacist if you're unsure.
Readmore abouttreating coldsand colds in younger children
When to get professional advice
Pharmacy First Scotland: Cold treatment from your pharmacy
If you have a cold or the symptoms of a cold, you get advice and treatment directly from a pharmacy. Find your local pharmacy on Scotland's Service Directory.
Search for a pharmacy near you
If you or your child has a cold, there's usually no need to see your GPas it should clear within a week or two.
You only really need tocontact your GP 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 get advice from a GP if you're concerned about your baby oran elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness such as a lung condition. You can also phone NHS 24's111service for advice.
In general, a person becomes contagious from a few days before their symptoms begin until all of their symptoms havegone. 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 andthen 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.
Anumber of differentviruses can cause a cold, so it's possible to have several colds one after the other, as each onemay becaused by a different virus.
How can Istop a cold spreading?
You can take some simple steps to help prevent the spread of a cold. For example:
- wash your hands regularly, particularlybefore 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 shouldthrow 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.
What's the difference between a cold and a flu?
Symptoms of a common cold
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
- 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:
- come on quickly
- usually include a headache, fever and aching muscles
- make you feel too unwell to continue your usual activities
- 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
Treating a common cold
You can manage cold symptoms yourself by following some simple advice. You'll normally start to feel better within 7 to 10 days.
Until you're feeling better, it may help to:
- drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost from sweating and having a runny nose
- eat healthily – a low-fat, high-fibre diet is recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
You may loseyour 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.
If you're concerned about coronavirus (COVID-19), be mindful of our ibuprofen advice on thecoronaviuspage.
Over-the-counter cold medications
The main medications used to treat cold symptoms are:
- painkillers –such asparacetamol andibuprofen, which can helprelieve 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.
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 avoidedin childrenas using both together may be unsafe.
Paracetamol and ibuprofen are also included in some cold medicines. If you're takingpainkillers and want to also take a cold medicine, check the patient information leaflet first or ask your pharmacist or GP 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.
Decongestants can be taken by mouth (oral decongestants), or as drops or a spray into your nose (nasal decongestants). They can help make breathing easierby 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 GP. They're also not suitable for people with certain underlying conditions and those taking certain medications.
Read more about who can use decongestant medication
The remedies outlined below may also helprelieve your symptoms.
Gargling and menthol sweets
Some people findgargling with salt water and sucking on menthol sweets can help relieve asore throat and blocked nose.
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 causeirritation 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 thattakingzinc 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 Csupplements is beneficial when a cold starts.
The following treatments aren't usually recommended to treat colds because there isn't strong evidence to suggest they're effective, and theymay cause unpleasant side effects:
- coughtreatments 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 a common cold
Colds usually clear up without causing any further problems. However, the infection can sometimes spread to your chest, ears or sinuses.
Sinusitis is an infection of the small air-filled cavities inside the cheekbones and forehead. It developsin up to1 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 temperatureof 38C (100.4F) or above
In most cases, the symptoms of sinusitis will resolve without the need for treatment.See your GP 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 estimatedone in every five children under the age offivewith a cold.
Symptoms ofa 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.
A chest infection such asbronchitisandpneumoniacan 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 youshould see your GP 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 thesecases, you could have a bacterial infection that needs tobe treated with antibiotics.
Colds in children
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 passeswithin 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 ofdeveloping further problems, such asear infections.
Very occasionally, more serious problems such aspneumonia can develop, so it's important to keep a close eye on your child.
Whatis the difference between adult and child colds?
Childrenget colds far more often than adults.While adults usually have two to four colds a year, children can catch as many as8 to 12.
The symptoms of a cold 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
- theyseem 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 withantibiotics
- they're finding it difficult to breathe – seek medical help immediately from your GPsurgery 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?
Antibioticsare used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses, so do not respond to antibiotics.
The overuse of antibiotics can lead toantibiotic 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 canI 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 of16
- 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 GP for advice if you're not sure how to look after your child or what medications are suitable for them to take.
What is the best treatment for the common cold? ›
Most cases of the common cold get better without treatment, usually within a week to 10 days. But a cough may linger for a few more days. The best thing you can do is take care of yourself while your body heals. For example, drink plenty of liquids, humidify the air, use saline nasal rinses and get adequate rest.What are the 5 stages of a cold? ›
The stages of a cold include the incubation period, appearance of symptoms, remission, and recovery.How long does the common cold last? ›
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.How do you recover from a cold fast? ›
- rest and sleep.
- drink plenty of water (fruit juice or squash mixed with water is OK) to avoid dehydration.
- gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat (not suitable for children)
“If you are reaching the 10-day mark of a cold and are not feeling any better, you should see your doctor,” says Christine Kirlew, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Piedmont. “Most cold viruses last seven to 10 days, so if it lasts longer than that, it could be a bacterial infection and require antibiotics.”What foods are good for a cold? ›
Kale, broccoli, cranberries, green tea, red onions, blueberries: What do these have in common? All have an antioxidant called quercetin that may help you fight the common cold.How contagious is a cold? ›
Colds are really not very contagious, compared to other infectious diseases. Close personal and prolonged contact is necessary for the cold viruses to spread. The viruses must get into the nose where they can infect the nasal membranes. The virus must attach to nasal cells after which the viruses can multiply.Does vitamin C help with colds? ›
Vitamin C does not prevent colds and only slightly reduces their length and severity. A 2013 review of scientific literature found that taking vitamin C regularly did not reduce the likelihood of getting a cold but was linked to small improvements in cold symptoms.How do you know a cold is ending? ›
Within 7–10 days , people will usually start to recover from a cold. Symptoms begin to ease up, and people will start feeling better. People may also find that they have more energy and are more able to carry out tasks as usual.How do you tell if it's just a cold? ›
- Runny or stuffy nose.
- Sore throat.
Can a common cold go away in 2 days? ›
The common cold often follows a timeline and can last up to 3 weeks. Symptoms can take 1 to 3 days to develop, peak at 1 to 3 days, and last up to 10 days. Colds usually go away on their own, so you don't need to see a healthcare provider. But over-the-counter (OTC) products can help with your symptoms.How do you catch a cold? ›
A person who has caught a cold is usually contagious one to two days before symptoms appear. With respiratory infections, such as the cold, flu or COVID-19, an infected person can release contaminated droplets containing the virus into the air, via coughing, sneezing, talking, shouting or singing.Does Covid feel like a cold at first? ›
The symptoms are very similar to symptoms of other illnesses, such as colds and flu.How can I kick a cold in 24 hours? ›
- Don't overdo it. When you start to feel like you're getting sick, this is often your body's way of telling you to ease up, slow down, and take care of yourself. ...
- Get enough sleep. ...
- Stock up on OTC meds. ...
- Fluids are your new best friend.
There is no way to get rid of a cold fast. A cold will usually go away on its own without treatment. However, a person may experience uncomfortable symptoms while they recover. People can take steps to aid recovery, such as getting plenty of rest.How do you know if a cold is viral or bacterial? ›
- symptoms last longer than 10 to 14 days.
- symptoms continue to get worse rather than improve over several days.
- you have a higher fever than normally observed with a cold.
Clear, watery mucus is usually a sign of a cold. A sinus will often cause mucus to become thick and green or yellow in color. If you experience nasal discharge that is colored and have a difficult time blowing your nose, you may have a sinus infection.How does RSV differ from a cold? ›
RSV can infect anyone, but is most dangerous in infants and the elderly. Its symptoms are similar to those of the common cold. They tend to run their course with only mild intensity in adults and older children. In infants and elderly, symptoms tend to be more severe, and can include fevers and wheezing.What can make a cold worse? ›
- Pretending you're not sick. This never works. ...
- Not sleeping enough. Getting enough sleep is key for a healthy immune system. ...
- Getting stressed. ...
- Drinking too little. ...
- Drinking alcohol. ...
- Overusing decongestant sprays. ...
Avoid salty foods, alcohol, coffee and sugary drinks, which can be dehydrating. Ice chips are another simple way to stay hydrated and calm a scratchy throat. Gargle with salt water. A saltwater gargle with about 1 teaspoon of salt per cup of warm water can help reduce the pain and swelling of a sore throat.
What drinks help with colds? ›
The best tips for getting over your cold are to drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. Water, juice, clear broth, and warm water with lemon and honey can really help loosen congestion. Tea is fine, but the decaffeinated kinds are best.Should I go into work with a cold? ›
Generally, Swartzman says, “through the eyes of a physician and as a public health professional, if you're not feeling well with respiratory symptoms, you should stay home. That's the safest thing to do.”Can you catch a cold from others? ›
Viruses that cause colds can spread from infected people to others through the air and close personal contact. You can also get infected through contact with stool (poop) or respiratory secretions from an infected person.What causes the common cold? ›
Although many types of viruses can cause a common cold, rhinoviruses are the most common cause. A cold virus enters your body through your mouth, eyes or nose. The virus can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks.Does zinc help with a cold? ›
There is no guarantee that zinc will help you feel better faster. In some studies, zinc did nothing to shorten how long people with colds felt bad. In other studies, zinc may have shortened symptoms by a few days. But the side effects from taking zinc can be uncomfortable or serious in some cases.What Vitamin gets rid of a cold? ›
Vitamin C. Vitamin C is marketed as the go-to supplement for preventing and treating colds. Mechanistically, it makes sense: vitamin C helps immune cells form and function, and it supports the physical barriers (such as the epithelial cells of your skin) that protect you from pathogens.Does vitamin D help fight colds? ›
Taking vitamin D is not a guaranteed guard against the cold or flu. But vitamin D supplements are inexpensive and might give you a boost. Vitamin D: New studies suggest that people with low blood levels of vitamin D are more likely to get sick. Researchers think that vitamin D may play a role in boosting immunity.Is it better to let your nose run when you have a cold? ›
Blowing your nose can clog your sinuses with germ-laden mucus. You'll feel better faster if you let your body flush out the virus naturally.Does blowing your nose help? ›
Blowing the nose regularly prevents mucus building up and running down from the nostrils towards the upper lip, the all-too-familiar runny nose. Later in colds and with sinusitis, nasal mucus can become thick, sticky and harder to clear.Does blowing your nose help get rid of a cold? ›
But in a new study, they have found that doing so may actually make a cold worse, because the blow propels mucus into the nasal sinuses. Blowing one's nose creates a significant amount of pressure, according to Jack M.
How long is cold infectious for? ›
You can spread the common cold from a few days before your symptoms appear until all of the symptoms are gone. Most people will be contagious for up to 2 weeks.Should you stay home with a cold? ›
Experts generally agree that it's best to stay home as long as you have severe symptoms, like a cough with mucus, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, or fatigue, because you may be contagious.How long is the common cold contagious CDC? ›
And the highest infectious period is usually one to two days prior to symptom onset and during the first two to three days of symptoms," said Dr. Oliver. But that's not always a hard-and-fast rule. As long as you're still coughing or showing symptoms of any kind, you may still be contagious.Can you sweat out a cold? ›
You may have heard that it's beneficial to “sweat out a cold.” While exposure to heated air or exercise may help temporarily relieve symptoms, there's little evidence to suggest that they can help treat a cold.What happens to your body when you have a cold? ›
Your blood vessels dilate
This allows more blood to flow into the area and bring more white blood cells to fight the virus. As a side effect, these areas will become puffy, red and filled with fluid – otherwise known as inflammation, the painful part of a cold.
If you're experiencing typical cold symptoms, you should rest at home and wear a cloth face mask if you must go out. If your illness lingers, you should talk with a health care provider who can assess your symptoms, suggest a treatment plan, and possibly test you for COVID-19.How can you tell a common cold from COVID-19? ›
Symptoms of a cold tend to be mild. You may have a runny nose, cough, congestion, and sore throat. But you won't usually have the aches and fever that are common with COVID-19 and flu. Often, you'll feel better in a couple of days.Should I get a Covid test if I have a cough? ›
You should get a COVID-19 test if: You have new symptoms such as fatigue, headache, body/muscle aches, cough, fever, sore throat, and/or congestion. You have symptoms and are at high risk for severe illness because of other medical conditions, age, or have a compromised immune system.Does Emergen C work? ›
Although many people take Emergen-C to prevent or shorten a cold, the scientific evidence showing it works is minimal. If you're an athlete or physically active, this supplement's vitamin C may help prevent a cold.Does eating honey help with cold? ›
If winter brings you a sore throat and coughing, a spoonful of honey can be quite soothing. And it might even reduce symptoms from an upper respiratory tract infection, suggests a review of studies published online Aug.
How do you kick a cold in one night? ›
While the duration of your symptoms may vary, many people wonder how to cure a cold in 24 hours or even overnight. The best way to tame a cold fast is to stay home, rest, drink plenty of fluids, gargle with salt water, take an OTC medication, and humidify the air.Which is best antibiotic for cold? ›
There is no cure for a cold. It will get better on its own—without antibiotics. Antibiotics won't help you get better if you have a cold. When antibiotics aren't needed, they won't help you, and their side effects could still cause harm.What is the best over the counter medicine to get rid of a cold fast? ›
Decongestants, pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, cough suppressants, and antihistamines can treat symptoms so you feel better faster, even if the viral infection lingers.Which is the best antibiotic for cold? ›
There is no cure for a cold. It will get better on its own—without antibiotics. Antibiotics won't help you get better if you have a cold. When antibiotics aren't needed, they won't help you, and their side effects could still cause harm.How do you completely get rid of a cold overnight? ›
There is no way to get rid of a cold fast. A cold will usually go away on its own without treatment. However, a person may experience uncomfortable symptoms while they recover. People can take steps to aid recovery, such as getting plenty of rest.Can the cold be contagious? ›
Viruses that cause colds can spread from infected people to others through the air and close personal contact. You can also get infected through contact with stool (poop) or respiratory secretions from an infected person.Should you stay home if you have a cold? ›
What's smartest is to stay home for the worst of the illness-about two to four days for a severe cold and five to seven days for the flu, Saxinger said. "When you're feeling your worst, try not to be out and about; that's when you are most infectious."How do I know if my cold is getting better? ›
These longer lasting symptoms may include:
- a runny nose.
- a stuffy nose.