Symptoms of a cold 

The symptoms of a cold usually develop within a few days of becoming infected.

The main symptoms include:

  • a sore throat
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • a cough
  • a hoarse voice
  • generally feeling unwell

Less common symptoms of a cold include:

  • a high temperature (fever) – this is usually about 37-39C (98.6-102.2F)
  • a headache
  • earache – severe earache may be a sign of a middle ear infection
  • muscle pain
  • loss of taste and smell
  • mild irritation of your eyes
  • a feeling of pressure in your ears and face  

The symptoms are usually at their worst during the first two to three days, before they gradually start to improve. In adults and older children, they usually last about 7 to 10 days, but can last longer. A cough in particular can last for two or three weeks.

Colds tend to last longer in younger children who are under five, typically lasting around 10 to 14 days. Read more about colds in children.

Is it a cold or flu?

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if you have a cold or something potentially more serious such as flu, as the symptoms can be quite similar. The main differences are:

Flu symptoms

  • come on quickly
  • usually include a headache, fever and aching muscles
  • make you feel too unwell to continue your usual activities

Cold symptoms

  • come on gradually
  • mainly affect your nose and throat
  • are fairly mild, so you can still get around and are usually well enough to go to work

When to visit your GP

Colds are generally mild and shortlived, so there's usually no need to see your GP if you think you have one. You should just rest at home and use painkillers and other remedies to relieve your symptoms until you're feeling better.

Read more about treating a cold.

Speak to a pharmacist if you want advice about treating a cold at home. You only really need to see your GP if:

  • your symptoms persist for more than three weeks
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • you have breathing difficulties
  • you develop symptoms of 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.

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2017