The common cold

The common cold gets its name from being one of the most common ailments in the UK. On average, adults get two to three colds a year, and children tend to get more – around seven to 10. Rest and home remedies are often enough to help you feel better.


What is a common cold?

A common cold is a viral infection that affects the nose, sinuses and throat. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a common cold, and, occasionally, more than one virus can be responsible.

A cold is very easily transmitted from person to person. When an ill person coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets containing the virus are released in the air, which cause infection if inhaled. A cold virus can live on hands and surfaces, such as door handles, you can get a cold if you touch an area with a cold virus on it. You can help to prevent colds by washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face.

Vulnerable people like young children, elderly, and people with underlying conditions are more likely to get colds as their immune systems tend to be weaker.


What are the symptoms?

Symptoms last for an average of seven-10 days and can include:

• Runny or congested nose
• Dry or productive cough
• Sore throat
• Headache
• Mild fever
• Feeling tired
• Loss of taste and smell
• Muscle pains, though this is more common with cases of flu (influenza)

A summer cold is a cold that occurs in the summer months. It's sometimes confused with seasonal allergies, or hayfever. Allergies are not caused by viruses, but by the body's reaction to a foreign substance, such as pollen or dust. If you have an allergy, your symptoms are usually limited to a runny nose, itchy eyes and a dry cough.


How can I treat my cold?

Your body's immune system will fight the virus and cure the cold. In the meantime, these things may help you feel better:

• Rest as much as you can
• Drink plenty of water (for most people, this is around six to eight glasses per day)
• Keep yourself warm, especially in winter 
• Adults may gargle with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat 


Are there any medicines I can take?

Consider taking medicine if your symptoms persist. But do bear in mind that medicines won't cure your cold, but may help to relieve your symptoms. Your body will eventually cure itself of the infection.

Paracetamol or ibuprofen may help with headaches and fever. Ibuprofen should always be taken with food, and if you have any existing conditions you should check with your pharmacist that it's suitable for you before taking it. Some lozenges and throat sprays may help with a sore throat – your pharmacist can advise you about this.

Consider taking a cold and flu preparation. These often contain sedating antihistamines to help you sleep, decongestants for a blocked nose, and paracetamol to reduce fever. 

Check with your pharmacist which preparation might be most suitable for you – be careful not to take a cold and flu preparation containing paracetamol or ibuprofen if you're already taking paracetamol or ibuprofen tablets to avoid taking more than the recommended dose. Check the packaging and patient information leaflet carefully, and ask your pharmacist if you're unsure. 


When should I see my GP?

• If your symptoms continue for more than three weeks in spite of self care
• If you suffer from heart failure, lung conditions, diabetes or other long-term conditions
• If your child has cold symptoms and they were born prematurely, it's also best to get them checked out
• If you're worried about your child's symptoms


What are the next steps?

• Rest and drink lots of fluids – six to eight glasses a day is a good aim for most people
• Check with your pharmacist which cold and flu preparation is most suitable for you
• Speak to your GP if symptoms worsen, if they don't improve, or if you're worried