Cold, common 

Introduction 

Cold or flu?

Do you know the difference between a cold and flu? An expert explains the conditions, treatments and remedies available.

Media last reviewed: 11/07/2013

Next review due: 11/07/2015

The 'common' cold

On average, adults have about two to four colds a year. Children have three to eight as their immune system is more vulnerable to infection.

Women tend to get more colds than men, possibly because they're more likely to come into close contact with children.

Colds are also more frequent during the winter months. This may be because people are more likely to stay indoors and be in close contact with each other.

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, although you can usually relieve the symptoms of a cold at home by taking over-the-counter medication, such as paracetamol, and drinking plenty of fluids.

Read more information about treating colds.

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.

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).

What causes a cold?

Colds are caused by viruses which attack the lining of the nose and throat, inflaming these areas. As they become inflamed, they begin to produce more mucus, resulting in a runny nose and sneezing.

More than 200 types of virus can cause a cold. Those most responsible for colds belong to one of two groups, rhinoviruses and coronaviruses.

Because a number of viruses can cause a cold, it's possible to have several colds, one after the other, as each one is caused by a different virus.

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.

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

Read more information about preventing colds and flu.




Page last reviewed: 19/06/2013

Next review due: 19/06/2015

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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

AJH1406 said on 19 October 2014

Re GOT14, I don't know. But is it possible that we all carry the cold virus in a latent form and that something triggers it?

I am tired of being told that being cold cannot cause a cold when my personal experience tells me otherwise. If my head and throat are exposed to cold, wet weather ( - as happened last Wednesday) I will almost certainly develop a cold. So perhaps the virus was latent in me and getting soaked on Wednesday released it.

It follows that the best prevention, for me anyway, is to avoid exposure to these conditions, e.g. By keeping warm and dray - and perhaps by wearing a scarf.

Worth a try to avoid the symptoms of the last few days!

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GOT14 said on 13 October 2014

Where does the guy who contracts a cold first contract it from?

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