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? 

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

Painkillers

Zinc supplements

Self-care advice

The remedies outlined below may also help relieve your symptoms:

Steam inhalation

Gargling

Gargling with salt water can sometimes help relieve the symptoms of a sore throat and nasal congestion.

Vapour rubs

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.

Menthol sweets

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.  

Symptoms

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.

Cold Symptoms

Flu symptoms

PEOPLE MORE AT RISK

STOP THE VIRUSES SPREADING!

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

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.

Tests may be needed to rule out a more serious infection such as pneumonia (a bacterial infection of the lungs) or glandular fever (a viral infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus).