The common cold is a contagious viral disease. We look at the causes, symptoms and treatment for a cold.
Reviewed by Stuart Crisp
Can’t shake that stinking cold? While there is no cure for the common cold, the good news is you can usually treat a cold without seeing your GP and you should begin to feel better within a week or two.
What is a cold?
A cold is a contagious mild viral infection that affects the soft lining of the nose. There are more than 100 different viruses that can cause a cold.
Colds are very common mainly in the winter months. Adults get an average of two to four colds a year. Children usually get more colds – young children under two years old can get as many as 8 to 10 colds in a year.
How do we catch a cold?
A person is contagious from the day before the illness breaks out, until one to three days after they feel better. Cold viruses can be spread by infecting people sneezing and coughing. Cold viruses can live on hands and surfaces for up to 24 hours.
Cold viruses can be spread by infecting people sneezing and coughing.
People with a cold typically carry the cold virus on their hands, if you come in to contact with the cold virus and get it on your hands and then touch your eyes or nose the virus can get the symptoms of a cold later. You can also get a cold if you touch contaminated surfaces such as work tops, desks and door handles and then touch your eyes or nose.
What are the symptoms of a cold?
The symptoms of a cold can include a sore throat, congested or runny nose, sneezing, headache, hoarse voice, coughing, generally feeling unwell and a high temperature, which is more common in children than adults.
In adults and older children, the symptoms of a cold typically last around a week.
In adults and older children, the symptoms typically last around a week, although a residual cough may linger for up to three weeks.
In younger children, the symptoms can last longer – 10-14 days on average.
How to treat a cold
Most colds are self-limiting, which means that they normally get better without any complications. Antibiotics are ineffective for treating the common cold which is caused by a virus infection, not a bacterial infection. Although the symptoms of a cold are unpleasant, a cold is harmless and complications such as chest or ear infections are rare. There is no cure for a cold, but while your body fights off the infection, there are various ways of relieving the symptoms of a cold. These include:
➡️ Drinking plenty of water and warm drinks. This will help soothe the throat as well as help you stay hydrated.
➡️ Get some rest until you feel better – you will know when you are well enough to return to normal activities. This will also help prevent the spread of the cold virus to others.
➡️ Try using steam inhalation to help ease a blocked nose and congestion – this helps loosen mucus in the nasal passages. Sit with your head over a bowl of hot water, place a towel over your head, close your eyes and breathe deeply to inhale the steam.
➡️ Get advice from your pharmacist about cold remedies that may help with symptoms of a cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and headache.
➡️ Use a saline nasal spray or drops to clear away mucus from the nose, this will help you breathe better and help get rid of the viruses causing the cold.
➡️ Sleep with your head on a high pillow.
➡️ Stop smoking – symptoms of a cold may get worse if you smoke and the infection can take longer to clear.
What can I do to avoid catching a cold?
To sidestep the common cold, try and incorporate the following into your daily routine:
✔️ If possible, stay away from people with colds.
✔️ Avoid crowded places, where the risk of infection is greater.
✔️ Do not touch your nose or eyes after being in physical contact with somebody that has a cold.
✔️ Wash your hands thoroughly, with warm water and soap.
✔️ Keep rooms well aired.
✔️ Try using a hand gel regularly.
When should I visit the doctor?
You should visit your GP if you have the following symptoms:
- You have a high temperature (above 39C or 102.2F).
- You are finding it hard to breathe or develop chest pain.
- Your cold persists for more than three weeks.
- You have a long-term medical condition such as diabetes, asthma or COPD.
- You have a weakened immune system, because of chemotherapy or medication you are taking.