SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- There is no cure for the common cold but symptoms can be relieved.
- Most people recover in about a week.
- Don’t use medications like antibiotics or cough mixtures.
Colds (or upper respiratory tract infections) are the most common cause of illness in children and adults). Most colds are caused by a virus. There are more than 200 types of viruses that can cause the common cold, which is why it’s not possible to be immunised against a cold.
What causes colds?
Colds are more common in the winter months. Cooler weather by itself does not increase the chance of getting a cold.
People are in closer contact with each other at this time of year because they stay indoors, and so are more likely to infect each other.
The viruses that cause colds are spread by sneezing, coughing and hand contact.
Symptoms of colds
The symptoms of a cold include various combinations of:
- A stuffy or runny nose
- Sore throat
- Red eyes
- Swelling of lymph glands
- There may be loss of appetite and, sometimes, nausea and some vomiting.
Symptoms will vary from person to person and from illness to illness. Usually, symptoms last from a few days to a week or more and you will recover fully without any ongoing problems.
If symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, schedule an appointment with you GP.
Relieving the symptoms of colds
There is no cure for the common cold and no specific treatment that will make the cold go away more quickly.
Symptoms can be relieved in several ways:
- Paracetamol can be given in appropriate doses if fever is present.
- Warm drinks will ease a sore throat and dry mouth.
- Nasal drops or spray will ease a blocked nose.
- Lozenges – the cheapest ones are equally as good as the expensive ones.
Children with a cold don’t need bed rest
There is no need for bed rest if your child has a cold, however it is important to limit the amount of activity the child participates in, as well as ensuring they are following the correct prevention measures.
By doing this, there is less chance of the cold spreading to other people.
To prevent the spread of a cold it is important children who are sick stay home from school and don’t participate in any group activities.
Don’t use medications
These treatments are not necessary and should be avoided:
- Antibiotics – colds are caused by a virus and antibiotics will not help, even though they are often prescribed.
- Cough medicines – these are of no benefit. The cough is caused by irritation of the trachea (windpipe) or excess mucus, and cough medicine does not affect either of these symptoms.
- Cold remedies and tablets – preparations that can be bought over the counter at the chemist are usually not helpful and should be avoided.
- Aspirin – do not give children aspirin as it may lead to a serious acute illness called Reye’s syndrome.
When to see the doctor
- Refuses to drink fluids.
- Vomits frequently.
- Complains of intense headache.
- Is pale and sleepy.
- Has difficulty breathing.
- Has a high fever that does not respond to paracetamol.
- Shows no improvement in 48 hours.
- Shows any other signs that you are worried about.
Prevention of colds
While it can be difficult to avoid getting a cold, there are preventative measures you can take to avoid passing it on to others.
There are some ways you can try to prevent getting a cold.
Wash your hands:
- Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds, using soap and water or use a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Wash your hands when you get home, arrive at other people’s homes, at venues or at work.
- Wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, or using the toilet.
Don’t cough or sneeze into your hands:
- Cover your nose or mouth with a tissue, then throw it away and wash your hands.
- If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow or upper sleeve.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Do not share drink bottles, glasses, crockery or cutlery other than with people you live with.
- Keep your distance – stay 1.5 metres away from people where you can.
- Do not go to work or school if you are sick.
Watch this video about hand hygiene.
The symptoms to watch out for are:
- Loss or change in sense of smell or taste
- Chills or sweats
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Runny nose.
Some people may also experience headache, muscle soreness, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.