Common cold

Symptoms of a cold include a blocked or runny nose, a sore throat and coughing.

You can ease cold symptoms by resting, drinking plenty of water and using decongestants (not suitable for young children) and painkillers.

Regularly washing your hands and not touching your eyes or nose can help you avoid catching a cold.

Check if you have a cold

Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • coughs
  • sneezing
  • 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.

How you can treat a cold yourself

To help you get better more quickly:

  • rest and sleep
  • keep warm
  • drink plenty of water (fruit juice or squash mixed with water is OK) to avoid dehydration
  • gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat (not suitable for children)

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.

You can:

  • ease aches or lower a temperature with painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • relieve a blocked nose with decongestant sprays or tablets

Decongestants should not be given to children under 6. Children aged 6 to 12 should take them for no longer than 5 days.

Be careful not to use cough and cold medicines if you're taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets. Cough and cold medicines often also contain paracetamol and ibuprofen so it can be 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.

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.

[Last reviewed 2021-02-04]
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