Coughs and Colds

You can often treat a cold without seeing a GP. You should begin to feel better in about 1 to 2 weeks.

Cold symptoms come on gradually over 2 to 3 days.

The main symptoms include:

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

You may also have:

  • a high temperature
  • aching muscles
  • a loss of taste and smell
  • a feeling of pressure in your ears and face

Symptoms of a cold can last longer in young children. They may also be irritable, have difficulty feeding and sleeping, breathe through their mouth, and get sick after coughing.

You can usually treat a cold at home without seeing a GP.

There are things you can do to help you get better more quickly.

Do

  • get plenty of rest

  • drink lots of fluid, such as water, to avoid dehydration

  • eat healthy food (it’s common for small children to lose their appetite for a few days)

  • gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat (not suitable for children)

  • drink a hot lemon and honey drink to soothe a sore throat

  • breathe in steam to ease a blocked nose – try sitting in the bathroom with a hot shower running

Don’t

  • do not let children breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water because of the risk of scalding

  • do not give aspirin to children under the age of 16

  • do not smoke as it can make your symptoms worse

If you have a high temperature or do not feel well enough to do your normal activities, try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people until you feel better.

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, such as:

You can buy nasal sprays without a prescription, but they should not be used for more than a week as this can make your symptoms worse.

Do not use other cough and cold medicines if you’re also taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as you may take more medicine than you should.

Some cough and cold medicines are also not suitable for babies, children and pregnant women.

There’s little evidence that supplements such as vitamin C, echinacea or garlic prevent colds or help you get better more quickly.

Find a pharmacy

See a GP if:

  • you have a high temperature for more than 3 days
  • your cold symptoms get worse
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • you feel short of breath or have chest pain
  • you’re worried about your child’s cold symptoms
  • your cold symptoms do not get better after 10 days
  • you have a cough for more than 3 weeks
  • you get cold symptoms and you have a long-term medical condition (for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung or kidney condition)
  • you get cold symptoms and you have a weakened immune system (for example, because you’re having chemotherapy)

GPs do not recommend antibiotics for colds because they will not relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Antibiotics only work if you have a bacterial infection, but colds are caused by viruses.

Colds are caused by viruses and easily spread to other people.

You’re infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes 1 to 2 weeks. It can be longer in babies and young children.

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

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 or children’s toys) with someone who has a cold
  • not touching your eyes or nose in case you’ve come into contact with the virus
  • staying fit and healthy

The flu vaccine does not prevent colds.


Page last reviewed: 22-03-2024
Next review due:22-03-2027

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