Common Cold

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A cold is an incredibly common minor ailment that everybody experiences from time to time. Though colds can vary in severity, they very rarely pose a serious threat to your health, which means you shouldn’t need to see a doctor for your symptoms.

You should be able to treat your symptoms at home, using home remedies and products readily available in pharmacies. Your cold should clear up within a couple of weeks.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

The symptoms of a cold tend to come on gradually. Most people will experience:

  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing

Normally, these symptoms should be mild enough that you can get on with your daily routine and continue going to work.

More severe symptoms include a fever, headache, and muscle pain – although usually these will indicate the flu (see below).

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

It’s easy to mix up the symptoms of a cold and the flu, or to assume that they are essentially the same thing. While there are similarities, the flu is a far more serious ailment that is more likely to cause severe symptoms.

The key characteristics of the flu are that it causes a fever, aches and pains across the body, and extreme tiredness which makes it difficult to get out of bed.

Differences between a cold and the flu include the following:

  • A cold tends to come on gradually whereas the flu can set in very quickly
  • A cold mostly affects the nose and throat, causing sneezing and coughing, while the flu causes symptoms across your body
  • A cold usually lets you carry on as normal, while the flu leaves you too exhausted to work, socialise or do chores

The flu can be dangerous for pregnant women, older people, and anyone who has a weakened immune system or suffers from a long-term medical condition. If you’re at risk and you think you might have the flu you should make an appointment with a doctor.

How do you catch a cold?

A cold is a viral infection that is spread in the fluid from the nose or mouth of an infected person. This fluid is spread when a person coughs or sneezes without covering their nose and mouth. If infected fluid enters your eyes, nose or mouth you can catch the same cold virus that is causing their symptoms.

It’s not true that winter weather causes colds, but it is true that they are more prevalent in the colder months. This is thought to be caused by people spending more time indoors, in close contact with one another.

Many different viruses can cause a cold, which is why it’s possible to get one cold after another.

To avoid catching a cold you should:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water
  • Avoid sharing cups or towels with someone who has a cold
  • Avoid close contact with someone who has a cold

Do I need to visit a doctor for a cold?

It’s generally advised that you don’t visit a doctor when you have a cold. This is for two reasons:

  • Most colds are very mild and normally clear up within one or two weeks
  • There is no prescription treatment recommended to treat colds – antibiotics are ineffective as a treatment for viral infections

In some circumstances it will be appropriate to seek medical help. It’s advised that you make an appointment if:

  • Your symptoms haven’t gone away after three weeks
  • Your symptoms have gotten worse
  • You have a high temperature or feel hot and shivery
  • You’re having trouble breathing
  • You’re having chest pain
  • You have a long-term condition or a weakened immune system

You can also visit your pharmacist for advice, or make an appointment for an online consultation with Doctor Care Anywhere.

How can I treat my cold symptoms?

While recovering you should rest, keep warm, drink plenty of fluids, and use non-prescription cold medications such as painkillers (paracetamol and ibuprofen) and decongestants. You can also try gargling with salt water and using vapour rubs to help unblock your nose.

Make sure you use cold medication correctly – combination treatments usually contain painkillers so make sure you don’t double up on your recommended dosage. 

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP