Common cold

Check if you have a cold

Cold symptoms come on gradually over 2 to 3 days.

The main symptoms include:

You may also have:

Symptoms of a cold can last longer in young children. They may also be irritable, have difficulty feeding and sleeping, breathe through their mouth, and get sick after coughing.

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, you can normally go to work)

Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal

How you can treat a cold yourself

You can usually treat a cold at home without seeing a GP.

There are things you can do to help you get better more quickly.


  • get plenty of rest

  • drink lots of fluid, such as water, to avoid dehydration

  • eat healthy food (it's common for small children to lose their appetite for a few days)

  • gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat (not suitable for children)

  • drink a hot lemon and honey drink to soothe a sore throat

  • breathe in steam to ease a blocked nose – try sitting in the bathroom with a hot shower running


  • do not let children breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water because of the risk of scalding

  • do not give aspirin to children under the age of 16

  • do not smoke as it can make your symptoms worse

How to make a hot lemon and honey drink
  1. Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water
  2. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey
  3. Drink while still warm

Do not give hot drinks to small children.

Do not give honey to children under 12 months old.

If you have a high temperature or 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.

A pharmacist can help with cold medicines

You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets.

A pharmacist can advise you on the best medicine, such as:

You can buy nasal sprays without a prescription, but they should not be used for more than a week as this can make your symptoms worse.

Do not use other cough and cold medicines if you're also taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as you may take more medicine than you should.

Some cough and cold medicines are also not suitable for babies, children and pregnant women.

There's little evidence that supplements such as vitamin C, echinacea or garlic prevent colds or help you get better more quickly.

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

  • you have a high temperature for more than 3 days
  • your cold symptoms get worse
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • you feel short of breath or have chest pain
  • you're worried about your child's cold symptoms
  • your cold symptoms do not get better after 10 days
  • you have a cough for more than 3 weeks
  • you get cold symptoms and you have a long-term medical condition (for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung or kidney condition)
  • you get cold symptoms and you have a weakened immune system (for example, because you're having chemotherapy)

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

Antibiotics only work if you have a bacterial infection, but 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. It can be longer in babies and young children.

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 does not prevent 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: 15 March 2023
Media review due: 15 March 2026

Page last reviewed: 22 March 2024
Next review due: 22 March 2027