If you or a family member has a cold, it means you have a virus that is affecting your head and chest, including your nose, throat, sinuses and ears.
Colds usually last 1–2 weeks. However, you could get a bacterial infection after a cold, such as an ear infection or sinus infection, which may mean you’re unwell for longer.
How colds are spread
There are over 200 different viruses that can cause colds. These viruses spread through the air when someone with a cold sneezes or coughs.
You may also catch a cold by handling objects that were touched by someone with a cold.
You’re more likely to get a cold if you:
- are tired, or emotionally or physically stressed
- do not have a healthy diet
- are a smoker or are exposed to second-hand smoke
- live or work in crowded conditions.
People tend to get fewer colds as they get older because they build up immunity to some of the viruses that can cause colds.
You usually start having cold symptoms 1–3 days after contact with a cold virus. Symptoms may include:
- scratchy or sore throat
- a cough
- sneezing and a runny or blocked nose
- watery eyes
- blocked ears
- a slight fever (37.2 to 37.8°C)
- tiredness and headache.
A cold is different from the flu (influenza). The flu usually develops more quickly. You’ll have fever and muscle aches within a few hours and will generally feel sicker than with a cold.
Self care when you have a cold
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink lots of fluids such as water.
- Use a humidifier to increase air moisture, especially in your bedroom.
There are no medicines that cure a cold. Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections, not the viral infections that cause a cold. However, you can treat your symptoms with medicines such as painkillers, nose drops or sprays, cough syrups and drops, throat lozenges and decongestants. (Check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take any of these if you’re already taking other medicines.)
Always read the medicine instructions and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are not sure.
Some medicines aren’t safe for children or for women during pregnancy. For example, Vicks VapoRub can be very dangerous if used on infants or young children, or if it is heated in any way.
When to see your doctor
Most colds last only a week or two and you probably won’t need to see a doctor. However, you should see your doctor if you get any of these symptoms with your cold:
- an earache that gets more painful
- wheezing, shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- swollen, tender glands in your neck
- chest pain
- skin rash
- a sore throat that gets more painful, or has white or yellow spots
- a cough that gets worse or becomes painful.
Also see your doctor if you have:
- a temperature of 38.6°C or higher that lasts more than 2 days
- shaking chills
- a headache that lasts several days.
If your lips, skin or nails look blue, or you’re feeling confused, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.
You can help prevent the spread of colds.
- Turn away from others and use tissues when you cough or sneeze.
- Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
- Wash your hands often and especially before touching food, dishes, glasses and cutlery.
- Use paper towels in bathrooms.
- Don't let your nose or mouth touch public telephones or drinking fountains.
- Don't share food or eating utensils with others.
- Avoid close contact with others for the first 2–4 days.
To lower your risk of catching a cold
- Avoid close contact with people who have a cold.
- Keep your hands away from your nose and mouth.
- Wash your hands often, especially after coming in contact with someone who has a cold.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Do not smoke.