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Can’t shake that nasty cold? Here’s how long a cold typically lasts and when you should see your doctor.

By Dr Roger Henderson

Anyone who’s had a cold knows just how miserable they can be. From a sore throat to a stuffy nose and a headache, the symptoms can make it hard to go about your usual daily activities and so you may be wondering: how long will this cold last?

A cold is a viral infection, of which there are over 200 different types of viruses. Most adults will catch at least two to four colds every year, with children having more, often during the winter months.

Colds can usually be treated at home without seeing a GP, and you should feel better in a week or so.

We talk to GP Dr Roger Henderson about how long it typically takes to get over a cold for adults and children, as well as tips on how to sidestep the sniffles.

How long does a cold last?

The average length of a cold is between 7 to 10 days in both adults and children.

Typically, the symptoms of a cold are a runny or blocked nose, sore throat and a headache. A cough will usually start around the fourth day when the nasal symptoms start to ease.

How to treat a cold

There are no drugs of proven benefit for treating the common cold, and antibiotics do not alter its outcome. Treatment is therefore aimed at providing relief of symptoms. To treat your cold try the following:

✔️ Take paracetamol

Paracetamol is an effective painkiller and antipyretic in most people.

✔️ Try over-the-counter medicines

There is a range of over-the-counter products that can be given to children over the age of two if required to help with symptoms such as a coughAspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16. Ask your pharmacist for advice,

✔️ Stock up on vitamin C and echinacea

There is some limited evidence that vitamin C may reduce the duration of a cold and that using echinacea preparations may also partly improve cold symptoms.

✔️ Keep hydrated

It is important to have an adequate fluid intake when suffering from a cold to keep well hydrated, and decongestants can provide short-term relief of a blocked nose but these should only be used for a day or two and never long-term.

How to prevent a cold from spreading

The transmission of both colds and flu is either by droplet infection from coughing and sneezing, or by direct nasal or eye contact with hands carrying the virus.

Simple measures to prevent both catching and spreading colds and flu include:

  • Regular hand washing.
  • Coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow rather than your hands or the atmosphere.
  • Avoiding close contact with someone suffering from a cold or flu, including not sharing towels and flannels.

When to see a doctor for a cold

While a common cold can usually be treated at home, you should see your doctor if any of the following occurs:

  • Your symptoms do not improve after three weeks.
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse.
  • Your temperature is very highor you feel hot and shivery.
  • You’re concerned about your child’s symptoms.
  • You’re finding it hard to breatheor develop chest pain.
  • You have a long-term medical condition (eg diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease).
  • You have a weakened immune system (eg if you’re having chemotherapy).

Net Doctor


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