Common cold

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

The common cold is a viral infection affecting your nose and throat. It affects many of us each year and isn’t usually serious.

What is the 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.

Symptoms of a common cold

  • Runny or blocked nose

  • Sneezing

  • Headache

  • Sore throat

  • Temperature

  • Muscle aches

  • Cough

Could it be Covid-19?

If you’ve got a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, there’s a chance it could be Covid-19. Take a test to check as soon as possible.

How long does the common cold last?

Most people recover from the common cold after a week to 10 days. But it can take up to 2 weeks to feel better.

Common cold symptoms might last longer in people who smoke. If your symptoms don’t improve, you should see a GP.

Are colds contagious?

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 bins it right away

How to treat a cold

Because the common cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help and shouldn’t be used.

The best common cold treatments are:

  • Plenty of rest and sleep

  • Keeping warm

  • Drinking lots of fluids (water is best)

  • Eating nutritious food

  • Gargling with salty water if you’ve got a sore throat (not suitable for children)

  • Inhaling steam – To help a blocked nose or sinuses, have a hot, steamy shower, or place your face over a bowl of boiled water, cover your head with a towel and breathe in the steam

You can also ask a pharmacist for advice about treating common cold symptoms. The pharmacist may suggest:

  • Taking an over-the-counter medication like paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce pain or a high temperature

  • Sore throat lozenges – These won’t treat your cold, but they may provide some pain relief

  • Decongestant sprays or tablets – To help relieve a blocked nose or sinuses

See a GP for a common cold if...

  • 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:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi