Most adults have two or three colds a year and children usually have around five. Despite what your Gran says, you won’t catch a cold by going out with wet hair or not wearing a vest.
Colds are viral infections. They’re very contagious and hard to prevent but there are steps you can take to avoid being affected and simple things you can do to minimise the misery if you do get struck down with a cold. Thankfully most colds will resolve within a week or two.
Dr Juliet McGrattan explains everything you need to know about the common cold including symptoms, treatment and prevention tips:
What is the common cold?
A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Virus particles infect and irritate the lining of your nose, sinuses and throat. You may hear a cold called an URTI (Upper Respiratory Tract Infection). URTIs are more common and less severe than lower respiratory tract infections (LRTIs) which infect the lungs.
Colds are very contagious and it’s easy to catch them from inhaling virus particles in the air when someone who has a cold coughs or sneezes near you or from touching a contaminated surface such as a door handle or light switch.
What causes the common cold?
There are over 200 types of viruses that can cause a cold including rhinoviruses, coronaviruses (not COVID-19), parainfluenza viruses and adenoviruses. Identified in the 1950s, rhinoviruses are responsible for over half of colds.
Colds are particularly common in the winter months when we’re indoors more and closer to other people, with less ventilation. Central heating and cold air both dry out nasal passages making them more vulnerable to infection too.
Common cold symptoms
The symptoms of a cold can affect any part of your upper respiratory tract and may make you feel a little unwell in yourself. They usually come on gradually over a number of days and include:
Runny or blocked nose
Reduced sense of smell or taste
Muscle aches and pains
🤒 You don’t need to see a doctor to be diagnosed with a cold. You can make the diagnosis yourself if you have the symptoms.
Common cold treatments
Colds will get better over the course of one or two weeks. The virus will gradually clear from your body. In the meantime, there are many things you can do to ease the symptoms and make yourself feel better:
✔️ Rest, take things easy and keep warm
✔️ Drink plenty of fluids – hot drinks are soothing
✔️ Take paracetamol to ease muscle aches, headaches and a sore throat
✔️ Try gargling with salt water to help a sore throat
✔️ Use steaming to clear a blocked nose
✔️ Use decongestants if steaming does not help – speak to your pharmacist for advice
✔️ Eat plenty of fresh fruit, particularly citrus fruits which contain vitamin C, this may help to reduce the duration of your cold symptoms
✔️ Stay away from others to prevent spreading your cold.
⚠️ If you are using a cold remedy, check whether it contains paracetamol. You must not take more than the daily recommended amount of paracetamol which is 4 grams every 24 hours for adults.
Antibiotics for colds
Colds are caused by viruses, taking antibiotics will not help because antibiotics kill bacteria not viruses. Your body will clear the cold virus on its own so treatment is aimed at simply making you feel better while this is happening. Green phlegm or nasal discharge, sinus pain or a temperature are common with viral infections and do not mean that antibiotics are required.
Complications of the common cold
Colds are not serious and will usually get better on their own. Complications from a cold are rare.
If you have asthma, then a common cold may worsen your asthma symptoms. If you are coughing, wheezing or using your reliever inhaler more than usual, speak to your asthma nurse or doctor for advice.
Occasionally people who have the cold virus can develop a secondary bacterial infection. Bacterial infections can occur in the sinuses, ear, throat or chest and tend to make you more unwell than a common cold. If you have any of the following, then you may have a bacterial infection and should see your doctor:
Your cold symptoms have persisted for three weeks or more
You have very high temperatures
You have recurrent shivers or shakes
You have difficulty breathing
You have pains in your chest
Certain conditions can make you vulnerable to infection, more likely to be severely affected or to develop a secondary bacterial infection. Speak to your doctor if you are concerned and:
You have a long term medical condition such as diabetes, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or asthma.
You have a weak immune system. For example, you are receiving chemotherapy or are taking medications which lower your immunity.
Can you prevent the common cold?
Common cold viruses are highly contagious so it’s difficult to stop yourself catching a cold. The virus is spread in air droplets from infected people’s coughs and sneezes and from surfaces that they have touched. Rhinoviruses can last up to 24 hours on some surfaces. There are simple things you can do to help prevent the virus from entering your respiratory tract:
Where possible, stay away from people with colds and avoid crowded places.
Don’t share cups, towels or other household items with people who have a cold.
Wash your hands frequently with warm soapy water or use a hand gel if this is not possible.
Try not to touch your face, especially if you have been near someone with a cold.
Keep rooms well aired.
Exercise regularly and eat a varied, healthy diet to look after your immune system.
There is insufficient evidence to say that taking daily vitamin C, D, zinc or echinacea supplements will prevent you catching a cold.
Consider using a cold defence nasal spray at the first sign of a cold.
Remember that the flu vaccine will not protect you against the common cold, only the flu. Because there are so many cold viruses and they mutate (change) so rapidly it’s not possible to make a vaccine to protect against the common cold.
If you have a cold you can help to protect others by making sure you catch your coughs and sneezes in a tissue, putting them straight into the bin and washing your hands frequently. You’re infectious from the first day you are affected until all your symptoms have completely cleared up.
Last updated: 05-11-20
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