Coughs & colds

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A cold is a mild infection that affects your nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It can cause symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, and fever. There are many different types of viruses that can cause a cold, but the most common one is called rhinovirus.

Colds are very common and usually not harmful for most people, they generally clear up without medical treatment in about a week or two. 


Although the symptoms of a cold are often mild, having a cold can be a disruption. Whilst there’s no cure for the common cold, understanding it and knowing how to manage it can help make your symptoms more bearable.

What does a common cold feel like? Someone with a cold may have one or more of the following symptoms:
- A blocked or runny nose

- A sore throat

- Headaches

- Muscle aches

- Coughs

- Sneezing

- Raised temperature

- Pressure in your ears and face

- Loss of taste and smell

In adults and older children, the above symptoms usually last about seven to 10 days. This may be slightly longer in children. If your symptoms persist for more than three weeks or your symptoms, get suddenly worse, you need to speak to your GP.

A blocked or 'stuffy' nose is a condition where the nasal passages are congested. This is your body's response to a virus as it produces more mucus to flush out any foreign invaders. This can make breathing through the nose difficult and may also cause a runny nose. A blocked nose can affect the way you taste and smell, a symptom that typically resolves itself once your nose clears.

A decongestant medication may help to reduce a blocked nose. This type of medication works by reducing the swelling of the blood vessels in the nose, which can help open the airways, making breathing easier. Decongestants are effective in providing short-term relief for nasal congestion caused by conditions such as colds, flu, hay fever, other allergic reactions, catarrh, and sinusitis.

Decongestant medication can be taken on its own or in a product combined with other active ingredients. It comes in various forms including nasal sprays, tablets, liquids or syrups, and flavoured powders to dissolve in hot water. The products that contain other active ingredients are often marketed as "all-in-one" remedies containing a decongestant and pain relief. Most decongestants can be bought over the counter from pharmacies. Make sure to check the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine to understand the correct dosage and frequency and to check if it’s suitable for you. If you're unsure, don't hesitate to ask a member of the pharmacy team for advice. It’s important to note that decongestants taken orally aren’t suitable for people with certain medical conditions.

Please remember that decongestant nasal sprays and drops should not be used for more than a week at a time. Using it for longer can make any nasal congestion worse. If your symptoms do not improve after this time, you should seek advice from a GP.

A blocked nose can be uncomfortable, but with the right management, it's typically a temporary inconvenience. Always consult a pharmacist or your GP if you have concerns about your symptoms or if they persist for longer than expected.

A sore throat is often one of the first signs of a cold and often accompanies a blocked or runny nose. A sore throat can be a result of when mucus slowly drips down the back of your throat (post-natal drip) when a cold virus takes hold, you may experience: 

• A painful throat, particularly when swallowing

• A dry, scratchy throat

• Redness in the back of your mouth

• Bad breath

• A mild cough

• Swollen neck glands

There are several strategies you can use at home to help a sore throat:
Gargle with warm, salty water –  An old remedy, gargling can help soothe a sore throat. Note: This is not recommended for children due to the risk of swallowing

Stay hydrated – Drinking plenty of water can help prevent your throat from drying out and becoming more irritated

Eat cool or soft foods – These types of food can soothe a sore throat and are easier to swallow

Avoid smoking and smoky areas – Smoke can further irritate a sore throat

Suck on ice cubes, ice lollies, or hard sweets – These can provide some relief from a sore throat but avoid giving young children anything small and hard due to the risk of choking

Rest – Giving your body a chance to recover can help shorten the duration of your sore throat

If your sore throat is accompanied by a high temperature, or if you feel too unwell to carry out your usual activities, it's best to stay at home and avoid contact with others until you're feeling better. If self-care strategies don't provide enough relief, a member of the pharmacy team can provide advice about over-the-counter medications, such as:

Pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen 

• Medicated lozenges which contain a local anaesthetic, antiseptic, or anti-inflammatory medicine

Anaesthetic spray (though there is little evidence to suggest they are effective)

Remember that antibiotics are usually not required for a sore throat associated with a cold. Antibiotics won't typically relieve symptoms or speed up recovery, and they're only prescribed if a GP thinks a bacterial infection might be present. 

A sore throat can be an uncomfortable symptom of a cold, but with suitable strategies, it can be managed effectively. 

The common cold can cause swelling and inflammation in your nasal passages which can create tension in the muscles around your head and neck, often leading to very painful headaches.

If you're struggling with a headache during a cold, there are several strategies you can consider to help manage the discomfort:
• Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help to alleviate the intensity of headaches

• Rest and relax: Plenty of rest can help your body recover from a cold while trying to keep everyday stress levels low can prevent making your headache worse

• Over-the-counter pain relief: Paracetamol or ibuprofen (if suitable for you) can often help to alleviate headache discomfort 

• Stay at home: If you have a high temperature or feel too unwell to do your normal activities, try to avoid contact with others and stay at home

• A hot or cold compress

There are also certain activities to avoid when dealing with a headache:

• Avoid alcohol: It can dehydrate you and worsen your headache

• Don't skip meals: Even if you don't feel like eating, maintaining a regular eating schedule can help keep your headache in check

• Don't oversleep: While rest is essential, oversleeping can sometimes make a headache worse.

• Limit eye strain: Spending prolonged periods looking at a screen can exacerbate headaches.

If your headache continues, doesn't respond to over-the-counter pain relief, or if you experience severe throbbing pain at the front or side of your head, it's advisable to see a GP. Additionally, if you experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or noise, seek medical advice.

You need to get an urgent GP appointment or call 111 if you or your child has a severe headache and experiences:

• Jaw pain when eating

• Blurred or double vision

• A sore scalp

• Other symptoms like weakness or numbness in the arms or legs 

If your child is under 12 and has any one of the following, it’s also essential that you get an urgent GP appointment or call 111:

• A headache that wakes them at night

• A headache when they wake up in the morning 

• A headache that gets progressively worse

• A headache triggered or made worse by coughing, sneezing or bending down

• A headache with vomiting 

• A headache with a squint, which is where the eyes point in different directions or they aren’t able to look upwards

You need to call 999 or go to A&E if you or your child:

• Has a head injury for example, from a fall or accident

• Has a headache that came on suddenly and is extremely painful

You or your child have an extremely painful headache and:

• Sudden problems speaking or remembering things

• Loss of vision

• Feel drowsy or confused

• Has a very high temperature and symptoms of meningitis

• The white part of the eye is red

Also, call 999 or go to A&E if your child is under 12 and has any one of the following:

• A headache with vision problems or difficulty speaking, swallowing, balancing or walking 

• A headache with drowsiness or a persistent lack of energy

• A headache that starts within five days of a head injury

When you're battling a cold, mild muscle aches can be a common complaint. This discomfort is part of your body's natural inflammatory response to the cold virus. As your immune system works hard to fight off the virus, it releases chemicals that increase inflammation, which can cause muscle aches and pains.

There are several strategies you can use to alleviate muscle aches during a cold:

• Take a warm bath –  A warm bath can help relax tense, aching muscles

• Use a hot water bottle – Applying a hot water bottle to aching muscles can provide direct, soothing heat, helping to reduce muscle tension and discomfort

Pain relief – Over-the-counter pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can often help to ease muscle discomfort

Coughing is your body's way of clearing irritants from your throat and airways. When you have a cold, the virus infects the parts of your body involved in breathing such as your sinuses, throat, airways or lungs which are known as your respiratory tract, causing an increase in mucus production. This extra mucus can trigger a cough reflex to clear your airways and protect your lungs.

There are two types of coughs:
- Dry cough: Also known as non-productive cough, a dry cough doesn't produce any mucus or phlegm. It often feels tickly and is usually caused by irritation or inflammation in the throat

- Chesty cough: Also known as a productive cough, a chesty cough brings up mucus or phlegm. This type of cough often accompanies a common cold or other respiratory tract infection, where more mucus is produced by the body

Here are some methods to help relieve cough symptoms:
• Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids can help thin the mucus in your lungs and soothe an irritated throat, making your cough less severe

• Honey and lemon: A warm drink of lemon and honey can be soothing for an irritated throat caused by coughing

Cough medications: Over-the-counter cough remedies can sometimes provide relief. These are usually divided into those that help with dry coughs and those that help with chesty coughs

While most coughs clear up on their own, it's important to see a GP if:

• your cough lasts for more than three weeks

• your cough is severe or is getting worse

• you cough up blood

• you feel very unwell

• the side of your neck feels swollen and painful

• you have a weakened immune system

• you have other worrying symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss, chest pain, or difficulty breathing

A sneeze is a sudden, forceful, uncontrolled burst of air through the nose and mouth. It's a complex process involving many parts of the body including the nervous system, muscles, and the respiratory tract. Sneezing is your body's way of clearing your nose of irritating substances like dust, smoke or mucus.

When you're battling a cold, the virus causes inflammation and irritation in the nose, triggering the release of chemicals called histamines. These histamines signal to your brain that something is irritating the nasal passages, prompting a sneeze to help to remove the irritants and help clear your nasal airways.

Sneezing can spread the cold virus, making it crucial to catch your sneezes in a tissue to prevent passing on your cold to others. The 'catch it, bin it, kill it' strategy is a simple but effective one: 
• Catch your sneeze in a tissue

• Bin the tissue 

• Wash your hands to kill any lingering germs

Frequent hand washing, particularly after sneezing, is essential to prevent the spread of the cold virus. Using warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds can help eliminate the virus from your hands.

When you have a cold, your body produces more mucus, leading to inflammation and swelling in the nasal passages and sinuses. This can lead to a build-up of pressure which can be felt in your ears and face.

To help alleviate the pain and pressure, you can consider:
Pain relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (if suitable for you) to help ease the discomfort

Decongestants (if suitable for you): Decongestant sprays or tablets can reduce the swelling in your nasal passages. However, these should not be used for more than a week, as prolonged use can sometimes make symptoms worse

Heat application: Applying a warm compress to the affected area can be soothing which in turn may help reduce discomfort

While these symptoms often ease as your cold resolves, it's crucial to see a doctor if:

• you experience severe pain

• your symptoms haven’t started to improve after around seven to 10 days

These could be signs of a more serious condition like an ear infection or sinusitis that may require medical attention.


Children and colds seem to go hand in hand, especially when they start mixing with other children at school or nursery. It's common for children to have more colds than adults, with cold season often peaking in September when kids are back in school. 

Just like adults, children with a cold may experience:
• a blocked or runny nose

• a sore throat

• headaches

• muscle aches

• coughs

• sneezing

• a raised temperature

• pressure in their ears and face

• loss of taste and smell

Additionally, children may also appear less active and may not want to eat.

To help children with a cold, you can:

• encourage rest –  Sleep can help the body fight off the cold. Make them as comfortable as possible and ensure they get plenty of rest

• ensure they stay hydrated– Keep them drinking fluids. Water, juice, and warm broth can help with hydration and soothe a sore throat. For a fun way to keep them hydrated, consider giving them ice lollies

• encourage them to eat – Try to get your child to eat as normal

• use child-specific medication – It’s important to use medication specifically designed for children. Children's cold medicines are formulated based on a child's body weight and age.  Never exceed the recommended dosage and always follow the instructions on the package

While it's nearly impossible to prevent all colds, teaching your child to wash their hands often, avoiding close contact with people who have colds, and supporting their immune system with a healthy diet and plenty of sleep can help reduce their risk.

Remember, it's completely normal for children to catch several colds each year, and each one helps them build up their immunity. If your child's symptoms seem unusually severe or last longer than two weeks, speak to your GP. 

While it can be upsetting to hear children cough, it's important to remember that coughing serves a purpose. It's the body's natural way of clearing away phlegm from the chest or mucus from the back of the throat. If your child is feeding, drinking, eating, and breathing normally, and there's no wheezing, a cough is typically not a cause for concern.

For children over the age of one, a warm drink of lemon and honey can be soothing. Here's how to prepare it:
1. Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water

2. Add one to two teaspoons of honey

3. Allow the mixture to cool to a safe temperature, then encourage your child to drink it while still warm. Remember, do not give hot drinks to small children

However, there are instances when a cough indicates that medical attention is needed:
• If your child's cough has lasted longer than three weeks, it's time to see a GP

• If your child has a very high temperature or feels hot and shivery, they may have a chest infection. You should take them to a GP, or you can call 111. If it's determined to be bacterial, the GP may prescribe antibiotics (note that antibiotics, if provided, will not immediately soothe or stop the cough)

• If your child's cough persists for a long time, is worse at night, or is brought on by physical activity, it could be a sign of asthma. A GP should check your child in this case

If your child is finding it hard to breathe, this is an emergency. Go to A&E or call 999 immediately as they'll need urgent treatment in hospital.

Coughs can be concerning, but understanding when to worry and how to help can empower you to manage your child's health effectively. Always consult with a healthcare professional if you have any doubts about your child's condition.

Colds are caused by various viruses and are highly contagious. Symptoms of a cold can last anywhere from one to two weeks, and you are infectious until all your symptoms have disappeared.

The common cold spreads primarily through germs from coughs and sneezes. These germs can live on hands and surfaces for up to 24 hours, making it easy for others to pick them up. You can become infected by touching a contaminated object or surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Additionally, inhaling tiny droplets launched into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes can also transmit the virus.

Colds spread most easily in environments where people are in close contact, such as among families or in schools and daycare facilities. They are also more common during the winter, though the exact reason for this is unclear.

Reducing the risk of spreading a cold is crucial, especially in communal environments. Here are some key strategies to prevent transmission:

• frequent hand washing: Wash your hands often with warm water and soap. This is especially important after you cough, sneeze, or blow your nose, and before you eat or prepare food 

• proper tissue use: Use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of used tissues in a bin as quickly as possible 

• avoiding close contact: Try to avoid close contact with others when you or they are experiencing cold symptoms

Remember, while a person is usually contagious from a few days before their symptoms begin until all their symptoms have gone, it's possible to have several colds one after the other, as each one may be caused by a different virus.

Stay mindful of your health and those around you. If you're feeling unwell, consider staying at home to recover and avoid passing the cold virus on to others.

A person with a cold can start spreading the virus from a few days before their symptoms begin until all the symptoms have ended, making prevention strategies crucial.

Here are some of the best ways to avoid catching a cold:

• Frequent hand washing: One of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of cold-causing viruses is by washing your hands regularly with warm water and soap. This is particularly important before eating, after going to the toilet and after being in public places 

• Avoid sharing personal items: Try not to share towels, cups, utensils or any other household items with someone who has a cold

• Avoid touching your face: Try not to touch your eyes or nose, especially if you have been in contact with someone who has a cold or an object they've touched. The virus can enter your body this way and cause infection

• Maintain good health: Supporting your immune system can help prevent colds. This involves eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, ensuring you get enough sleep and managing everyday stress

By implementing these preventative measures, you can effectively minimise your risk of catching a cold and help to protect those around you as well.  Please note: having a flu vaccination helps prevent the flu, but will not help prevent the common cold, as different types of viruses cause flu and the common cold. 

While there's no cure or way of preventing the common cold, there are numerous ways to care for yourself at home and relieve your symptoms until the cold runs its course. You can try some self-care measures which can help to reduce the severity and duration of the symptoms. These include:
• Rest: Give your body the time it needs to fight off the cold virus. Try to get more sleep than usual and take it easy during the day

• Hydrate: Make sure to drink plenty of fluids to help replace those lost from sweating and having a runny nose. This will also soothe a sore throat and keep your body functioning well

• Eat healthily: Maintain a balanced diet, even if your appetite is reduced

Over-the-counter treatments, if suitable for you, may also help, including:
Pain relief: Over-the-counter pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can reduce fever and help with discomfort 

Decongestants: Available in sprays or tablets, these can help alleviate a blocked nose, making it easier for you to breathe. Please note that decongestant tablets are not suitable for people with certain medical conditions 

• All-in-one products: Some products contain a combination of medications including a decongestant, pain relief, or an antihistamine. These are often sold as day relief and night relief.  The day formulations aim to relieve symptoms without causing drowsiness, while the night formulations may contain an ingredient to help you rest. Always be careful not to double-dose on any ingredients if using these combinations – for example, don't take additional paracetamol if it's already an ingredient in your all-in-one medication.

If you’re unsure which medicine is suitable for you, speak to a member of the pharmacy team for advice. These treatments may not be suitable for babies, young children, pregnant women, people with certain underlying health conditions and those taking certain other medications. 

By taking these steps you can effectively manage your cold symptoms until you're back to feeling your best.


NHS information on coughs & how to treat a cough yourself

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A cold usually appears gradually. It affects mainly your nose and throat, and it makes you feel unwell, but you’re usually okay to carry on with your usual daily activities as normal. With the flu, it appears quickly, normally within a few hours, it affects more than just your nose and throat, and can make you feel exhausted. This can mean you’re too unwell to carry on with your normal activities.

Learn more about the differences between the cold and the flu, alongside the differences between a cold, COVID-19, and the flu

A pharmacist can help with cold medicines. You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets. A pharmacist can help provide guidance on the medication available, for example, pain relief or a decongestant, that would be suitable for you and your symptoms.

Combination products for cold (and flu) symptom relief often contain pain relief. It’s important to check the ingredients of a product. For example, if a product contains paracetamol, do not take another product containing paracetamol. It’s also important to note that some cough and cold medicines may not be suitable for children, babies or pregnant women.

To find your local Boots pharmacy click here.

No, you don’t need antibiotics for a cold. Colds are caused by viral infections and antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can contribute to antibiotic resistance, meaning they may be less effective in the future.

There is usually no need to see a doctor if you have a cold. The symptoms can often be managed by self-care measures. However, you should see your GP if you: 
- have symptoms which don’t improve after three weeks

- have symptoms which suddenly get worse

- have a temperature which is very high 

- are concerned about any symptoms

- are feeling short of breath or developing any chest pain

- have a long-term medical condition like diabetes, or a heart, lung or kidney condition

- have a weakened immune system, for example, because you’re undergoing chemotherapy

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10Eligibility criteria and charges apply.  In most Boots pharmacies, subject to availability. People aged 65 and over are also eligible for a free NHS pneumonia vaccination. If you’re over 65 and haven’t already had the NHS vaccination, speak to your doctor about having this. It’s a different type of vaccination to the one used in the Boots service so you may want to consider having both to further increase your protection against pneumonia. You may also be eligible for the NHS vaccination if you are under 65 and are living with a long-term health condition such as diabetes. The Boots Pneumonia Vaccination Service does not replace the need for the NHS vaccination.

 To find out who may be eligible for a FREE NHS flu jab, see for details. The free NHS (or other locally funded) flu jab is available in most Boots pharmacies in England and Wales and in some Boots pharmacies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey. Also available in our Isle of Man pharmacy. Appointments for the NHS service in England from October. Other locally funded services start in October. Private Service starts in September.  Eligibility criteria apply and vary with locality. Subject to availability. Some people who do not meet the requirements for a free NHS (or other locally funded) flu jab in pharmacies can access the flu jab from their GP or in Scotland, at a vaccination centre. Speak to a member of our pharmacy team or see for more details.

Page last reviewed by Boots Pharmacy team on 27/09/2023

At Boots, we understand that colds and coughs can affect your every day which is why we have gathered products, advice and services to help you get back to yourself. Whether you are suffering from headaches, sore throat or a fever we've got you covered!