Introduction 

A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It's very common and usually clears up on its own within a week or two.

The main symptoms of a cold include:

More severe symptoms, including a high temperature (fever), headache and aching muscles can also occur, although these tend to be associated more with flu.

Read more about the symptoms of a cold.

What to do

There's no cure for a cold, but you can look after yourself at home by:

  • resting, drinking plenty of fluids and eating healthily
  • taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to reduce any fever or discomfort
  • using decongestant sprays or tablets to relieve a blocked nose
  • trying remedies such as gargling salt water and sucking on menthol sweets

Many painkillers and decongestants are available from pharmacies without a prescription. They're generally safe for older children and adults to take, but might not be suitable for babies, young children, pregnant women, people with certain underlying health conditions, and those taking certain other medications. Speak to a pharmacist if you're unsure.

Read more about treating colds and colds in younger children.

When to see your GP

If you or your child has a cold, there's usually no need to see your GP as it should clear within a week or two.

You only really need to contact your GP if:

  • your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • you have breathing difficulties
  • you develop complications of a cold, such as chest pain or coughing up bloodstained mucus

It might also be a good idea to see your GP if you're concerned about your baby or an elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness such as a lung condition. You can also phone NHS 111 for advice.

How do colds spread? 

In general, a person becomes contagious from a few days before their symptoms begin until all of their symptoms have gone. This means most people will be infectious for around two weeks.

You can catch the virus from an infectious person by:

  • inhaling tiny droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus – these are launched into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • touching the skin of someone who has the infected droplets on their skin and then touching your mouth or nose
  • touching an object or surface contaminated by infected droplets and then touching your mouth or nose

Colds spread most easily among groups of people in constant close contact, such as families and children in school or day care facilities. They're also more frequent during the winter, although it's not clear exactly why.

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

How can I stop a cold spreading?

You can take some simple steps to help prevent the spread of a cold. For example:

  • wash your hands regularly, particularly after touching your nose or mouth and before handling food 
  • always sneeze and cough into tissues – this will help prevent the virus-containing droplets from your nose and mouth entering the air, where they can infect others; you should 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
  • don't share towels or toys with someone who has a cold

It's been suggested that vitamin Czinc  and garlic supplements may help reduce your risk of getting a cold, but there's currently not enough strong evidence to support this.

Read more about preventing colds and flu.

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2017