Common cold

You can often treat a cold without seeing a GP. You should begin to feel better in about 1 to 2 weeks.

Check if you have a cold

Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include:

The symptoms are the same in adults and children. Sometimes symptoms last longer in children.

Telling the difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu symptoms are similar, but flu tends to be more severe.

Difference between cold and flu
Cold Flu
Appears gradually Appears quickly within a few hours
Affects mainly your nose and throat Affects more than just your nose and throat
Makes you feel unwell, but you're OK to carry on as normal (for example, go to work) Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal

How you can treat a cold yourself

A pharmacist can help with cold medicines

To help you get better more quickly:

If you have a high temperature or you do not feel well enough to do your normal activities, try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people until you feel better.

You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets. A pharmacist can advise you on the best medicine.

You can:

Decongestants should not be given to children under 6. Children aged 6 to 12 should take them for no longer than 5 days.

Be careful not to use cough and cold medicines if you're taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets. Cough and cold medicines often also contain paracetamol and ibuprofen so it can be easy to take more than the recommended dose.

Some are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women.

There's little evidence that supplements (such as vitamin C, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery.

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

  • your symptoms do not improve after 3 weeks
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • you're concerned about your child's symptoms
  • you're feeling short of breath or develop chest pain
  • you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung or kidney condition
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you're having chemotherapy

Antibiotics

GPs do not recommend antibiotics for colds because they will not relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, and colds are caused by viruses.

How to avoid spreading a cold

Colds are caused by viruses and easily spread to other people. You're infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes 1 to 2 weeks.

Colds are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes, which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.

To reduce the risk of spreading a cold:

How to prevent catching a cold

A person with a cold can start spreading it from a few days before their symptoms begin until the symptoms have finished.

The best ways to avoid catching a cold are:

The flu vaccine helps prevent flu but not colds.

See how to wash your hands correctly

Video: How to wash your hands

Watch this video to find out the best way to wash your hands.

Media last reviewed: 30 March 2020
Media review due: 30 March 2023

Page last reviewed: 4 February 2021
Next review due: 4 February 2024