If you have a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, it could be coronavirus (COVID-19).
You can often treat a cold without seeing a GP. You should begin to feel better in about a week or 2.
Check if you have a cold
Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include:
- a blocked or runny nose
- a sore throat
- muscle aches
- a raised temperature
- pressure in your ears and face
- loss of taste and smell
The symptoms are the same in adults and children. Sometimes symptoms last longer in children.
Telling the difference between cold and flu
Cold and flu symptoms are similar, but flu tends to be more severe.
|Appears gradually||Appears quickly within a few hours|
|Affects mainly your nose and throat||Affects more than just your nose and throat|
|Makes you feel unwell, but you're OK to carry on as normal (for example, go to work)||Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal|
How you can treat a cold yourself
To help you get better more quickly:
A pharmacist can help with cold medicines
You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets. A pharmacist can advise you on the best medicine.
- relieve a blocked nose with decongestant sprays or tablets
- ease aches or lower a temperature with painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
Be careful not to use cough and cold medicines if you're taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets, as it's easy to take more than the recommended dose.
Some are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women.
There's little evidence that supplements (such as vitamin C, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery.
Do not go to a pharmacy if you have a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, it could be coronavirus.
Ask someone to go for you if you can.
Urgent advice: Contact NHS 111 if you need medical help
- if you have a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, use the 111 online coronavirus service
- if you have any other symptoms and need medical help, use the regular 111 online service
Only call 111 if you cannot get help online or you need help for a child under 5.
GPs do not recommend antibiotics for colds because they will not relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.
Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, and colds are caused by viruses.
How to avoid spreading a cold
Colds are caused by viruses and easily spread to other people. You're infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes a week or 2.
Colds are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes, which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.
To reduce the risk of spreading a cold:
- wash your hands often with warm water and soap
- use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
- bin used tissues as quickly as possible
How to prevent catching a cold
A person with a cold can start spreading it from a few days before their symptoms begin until the symptoms have finished.
The best ways to avoid catching a cold are:
- washing your hands with warm water and soap
- not sharing towels or household items (like cups) with someone who has a cold
- not touching your eyes or nose in case you have come into contact with the virus – it can infect the body this way
- staying fit and healthy
The flu vaccine helps prevent flu but not colds.
See how to wash your hands correctly
Media review due: 30 March 2023
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Page last reviewed: 19 December 2017
Next review due: 19 December 2020