Common coldSee all parts of this guide Hide guide parts
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:
- a sore throat
- a blocked or runny nose
- a cough
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 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.
If you or your child has a cold, there's usually no need to see your GP as it should clear within a week or two.
You only really need to contact 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 or an elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness such as a lung condition. You can also phone NHS 24's 111 service for advice.
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.
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 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.
If you're concerned about coronavirus (COVID-19), be mindful of our ibuprofen advice on the coronavius page.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 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:
- 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 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 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 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 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.
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 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 these cases, you could have a bacterial infection that needs to be 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 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.
What is the difference between adult and child colds?
Children get colds far more often than adults. While adults usually have two to four colds a year, children can catch as many as 8 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
- 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 GP 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 GP for advice if you're not sure how to look after your child or what medications are suitable for them to take.
29 May 2023
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