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Common cold

The common cold is an infection in the upper respiratory tract, caused by a virus. It causes characteristic sneezing and a runny nose - and although it’s not usually clinically serious, it can be very annoying and uncomfortable.

Colds affect both adults and children. Most adults catch a cold around 2-3 times a year, and children will usually have many more. A common cold is frequently associated with the winter months – although more common in winter, a cold can occur at any time of year.

  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Temperature
  • Muscle aches
  • Cough

The common cold is highly contagious and spreads easily from person to person. It can spread from a few days before cold symptoms begin, until symptoms have completely resolved. The virus spreads through the air and can live on surfaces for 24 hours.

Many different strains of virus can cause a cold, so it’s possible to catch several different colds in quick succession. To reduce the risk of catching a cold or passing one on:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water
  • Don’t share towels, toys, cutlery, food or drinks with someone who has a cold
  • Clean surfaces regularly
  • Make sure someone with a cold sneezes and coughs into a tissue and quickly disposes of it in a bin

A common cold is caused by a virus, so antibiotics make no difference in treating a cold and should not be used.

The best treatment is supportive care:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Eat nutritious food
  • Drink fluids (water is best) regularly
  • Gargle salt for a sore throat
  • If necessary, use over the counter medications like paracetamol and/or ibuprofen to reduce pain or temperature

Sore throat lozenges will not treat a cold, but can provide symptomatic relief.

A congested nose or sinuses can also be helped by inhaling steam. Do this by having a hot, steamy shower, or by placing your head over a bowl of boiled water with a towel over the bowel and your head to inhale the steam.

Symptoms of a cold usually clear up by themselves within 1-2 weeks.

  • You still have symptoms that have not improved after 3 weeks
  • You feel very unwell, particularly if you have a very high temperature or your symptoms have gotten suddenly worse
  • You’re short of breath, wheezing or develop chest pain
  • You have a weakened immune system.
Last updated:
12 Nov 2020
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi