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.
On this page
What are colds?
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 over 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.
Cold 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
- fever (occasionally)
- loss of appetite and, sometimes, nausea and vomiting.
The actual symptoms will vary from person to person and from illness to illness. Usually, the symptoms will last from a few days to a week or more, and you recover fully without any ongoing problems.
There is no cure, but symptoms can be relieved
There is no cure for the common cold. There is no specific treatment that will make the cold go away more quickly.
Symptoms can be relieved in a number of ways:
- Paracetamol can be given in appropriate doses if fever is present.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Nasal drops or spray will ease a blocked nose.
- Throat lozenges.
Children with a cold don’t need bed rest
There is no need for bed rest if your child has a cold – let the child decide how much activity they want to take part in.
Although children are unlikely to be hungry, make sure they drink lots of fluids. Appetite will return as the child starts to feel better.
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
Virtually all upper respiratory tract infections get better without any specific treatment. See the doctor if you or your child:
- 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
It is difficult to avoid getting upper respiratory infections. There is no value in taking vitamins in the mistaken belief that this will increase resistance.
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.
Other tips include:
- 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, childcare or school if you are sick.
Watch this video about hand hygiene.
The symptoms of colds can be similar to the symptoms of COVID-19.
If you have any of the symptoms listed below, however mild, you should seek advice and get tested immediately.
To get further advice, call the 24-hour coronavirus hotline 1800 675 398 or see your general practitioner.
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.
Where to get help
- In an emergency, always call triple zero (000)
- Your GP (doctor)
- NURSE-ON-CALL (24 hours, 7 days) Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice
- Your pharmacist
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