COLD AND FLU
The Common Cold
A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It can cause a blocked nose followed by a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough.
In adults and older children, the cold will usually last for about a week as the body fights off the infection. Colds in younger children can last up to two weeks.
There is no cure for a cold, If you're generally fit and healthy, you can usually manage the symptoms of a cold or flu yourself without seeing a doctor. Look after yourself by resting, drinking non-alcoholic fluids to avoid dehydration and avoiding strenuous activity. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can relieve aches and pains.
How does a cold spread?
A cold can be spread through:
- direct contact – if you sneeze or cough, tiny droplets of fluid containing the cold virus are launched into the air and can be breathed in by others
- indirect contact – if you sneeze onto a door handle and someone else touches the handle a few minutes later, they may catch the cold virus if they then touch their mouth or nose
In general, a person first becomes contagious two to three days before their symptoms begin, and they remain contagious until all their symptoms have gone. So most people will be contagious for around two weeks.
Treating a common cold
You should be able to treat cold symptoms yourself by trying over-the-counter cold medications and following some simple advice.
How to look after yourself when you have a cold
Over-the-counter cold medications
In the UK, over-the-counter cold medicines are probably the most widely used type of medication.
- Painkillerssuch as ibuprofen, paracetamol and aspirin – which are the only type of medication known to be effective in treating colds.Children under 16 years old or breastfeeding women should not take aspirin.
- Decongestants (medications designed to reduce nasal congestion) – may have limited effectiveness against colds. However, don't use them for more than seven days because overuse can make the symptoms of congestion worse. Children under six years old should not use decongestants.
Most over-the-counter cold medications aren't suitable for children under six years old. If your child is unwell, talk to your pharmacist about the best option.
Many of these medications contain a combination of different medicines; typically a painkiller, such as paracetamol, and a decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine.
If you have recently taken a cold medication, it may not be safe for you to take an additional painkiller. Read the manufacturer’s patient information leaflet carefully before taking the medication, and follow the recommended dosage instructions.
More information about specific over-the-counter cold medicines is provided below.
Paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin can help reduce a fever and also act as painkillers. Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16 and look for age-appropriate versions of paracetamol and ibruprofen (usually in liquid form). Always follow manufacturer's instructions to ensure the correct dose is given.
Children must not be given both ibuprofen and paracetamol unless directed by a qualified medical professional – use one or the other. Using both could cause adverse side effects. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Read more information about giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin are also included in some cold medicines with other ingredients. Check with your pharmacist or GP before taking a cold remedy if you're taking any other painkillers.
If you're pregnant, paracetamol – not ibuprofen – is the preferred choice to treat mild to moderate pain and fever.
Read more information about:
Taking zinc syrup, tablets or lozenges may be an effective treatment for the common cold.
A 2011 Cochrane review suggests that taking zinc supplements within a day of the symptoms starting will speed up recovery and lessen the severity of symptoms.
However, long-term use of zinc isn't recommended as it could cause side effects such as vomiting and diarrhoea.
More research is required to determine the recommended dose.
- Drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost due to sweating and a runny nose.
- Get plenty of rest – there's no official guidance as to how long a person should stay off work or school. Most people know when they're fit enough to return to normal activities.
- Eat healthily: a low-fat, high-fibre diet is recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (five portions a day).
Many children lose their appetite when they have a cold. This is perfectly normal and should only last a few days. It's recommended children with a cold only eat when they're hungry.
The remedies outlined below may also help relieve your symptoms:
Steam inhalation involves sitting with your head over a bowl of hot water. Place a towel over your head, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Avoid getting the hot steam in your eyes.
The steam may help ease your congestion by loosening mucus and making it easier to clear by blowing your nose. Adding menthol, eucalyptus, camphor, thymol or pine oil to the water may help clear the passageways in your nose.
Steam inhalation is not advised for children because of the risk of scalding. Instead, it might help a child if they sit in a hot, steamy bathroom.
Gargling with salt water can sometimes help relieve the symptoms of a sore throat and nasal congestion.
Vapour rubs can help soothe the symptoms of a cold in babies and young children. Apply the rub to your child’s chest and back. Don't apply it to their nostrils because this could cause pain and breathing difficulties.
Some people find sucking a menthol sweet can help relieve a sore throat.
Nasal saline drops
Nasal saline drops or sprays can help relieve the symptoms of nasal congestion in babies and young children. Nasal saline drops contain salt water so they're thought to work in the same way as gargling salt, but they're often better tolerated in babies and young children.
Nasal saline drops or sprays are available from most pharmacists.
Is it cold or flu?
Flu is not a 'bad cold'. Each year, thousands of people die of complications after catching the flu. Find out how colds and flu differ.
Colds and flu share some of the same symptoms (cough, sore throat), but are caused by different viruses. Flu can be much more serious than a cold.
If you're generally fit and healthy, you can usually manage the symptoms of a cold or flu yourself without seeing a doctor. Look after yourself by resting, drinking non-alcoholic fluids to avoid dehydration and avoiding strenuous activity. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can relieve aches and pains.
There are around 200 viruses that cause colds and just three that cause flu. There are many strains of these flu viruses, and the vaccine changes every year to protect against the most common ones.
Colds cause more nasal problems, such as blocked nose, than flu. Fever, fatigue and muscle aches are more likely and more severe with flu.
Symptoms of a cold include:
- runny nose – beginning with clear mucus that develops into thicker, green mucus as the cold progresses
- blocked nose
- sore throat
People with a cold may also suffer with a mild fever, earache, tiredness and headache. Symptoms develop over one or two days and gradually get better after a few days. Some colds can last for up to two weeks.
According to the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff, a cold is most contagious during the early stages, when the person has a runny nose and sore throat.
Flu usually comes on much more quickly than a cold, and symptoms include:
- sudden fever of 38-40C (100-104F)
- muscle aches and pains
- feeling exhausted and needing to lie down
- a dry, chesty cough
A person with flu may also have a runny nose and be prone to sneezing, but these are not usually the defining symptoms of flu.
Flu symptoms appear one to three days after infection and most people recover within a week, although you may feel tired for longer. A severe cold can also cause muscle aches and fever, so it can be hard to tell the difference.
Whether it’s a cold or flu, get medical help if you either:
PEOPLE MORE AT RISK
Some people need to take extra care as they're more at risk of serious chest complications, such as pneumonia and bronchitis. People over 65 are more at risk of complications. People under 65, including children, are more at risk of complications if they have:
- serious heart or chest complaints, including asthma
- serious kidney disease or liver disease
- lowered immunity due to disease or medical treatment
- had a stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
Everyone in an at-risk group is eligible for a free flu vaccination, which is the best protection against the virus. Find out who is offered the flu jab, including all pregnant women.
STOP THE VIRUSES SPREADING!
Cold and flu viruses are spread by droplets that are coughed or sneezed out by an infected person. Other people can breathe in these droplets or transfer the droplets to their eyes or nose, via their fingers.
Protect yourself and others against colds and flu by:
- coughing or sneezing into a tissue
- throwing a used tissue away as soon as possible
- washing your hands as soon as possible
- having a flu jab every year if you're in an at-risk group
Colds and flu viruses can also be passed on via infected droplets on objects or surfaces, such as door handles. You can help to prevent passing on or getting colds and flu by washing your hands regularly, and avoiding touching your eyes and nose.
To check your symptoms, use our colds and flu symptom checker.
How can I prevent a cold spreading?
You can take steps to help prevent the spread of a cold. For example:
- wash your hands regularly and properly, particularly after touching your nose or mouth and before handling food
- always sneeze and cough into tissues as this will help to prevent the virus-containing droplets from your nose and mouth entering the air where they can infect others; throw away used tissues immediately and wash your hands
- clean surfaces regularly to keep them free of germs
- use your own cup, plates, cutlery and kitchen utensils
- use disposable paper towels to dry your hands and face, rather than shared towels. As with tissues, always dispose of the paper towels after you have finished using them
When to see a GP
You only really need to see your GP if:
- your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
- you have a high temperature (fever) of 39°C (102.2°F) or above
- you cough up blood-stained phlegm (thick mucus)
- you feel chest pain
- you have breathing difficulties
- you experience severe swelling of your lymph nodes (glands) in your neck and/or armpits
See your GP if you're concerned about your baby, an elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness, such as a chest condition. You can also phone NHS 111 for an assessment.