Family doctor



COMMON COLD - a patient's guide


There is no cure for a cold but this article provides helpful advice on how to relieve the irritating symptoms.


  • The common cold is the most common infectious illness
  • Colds are mainly caused by rhinoviruses
  • They are very contagious and spread by coughing and sneezing
  • Most adults will get between two and four colds a year, children may get more
  • There is no proven cure for a cold but some treatments can relieve symptoms
  • Over the counter medicines are not believed to help children with a cold
  • Some drugs have been shown to prevent colds, but only if they are taken before symptoms develop.

What is it?

The common cold is considered the most common illness in the community.

Colds are very contagious and most adults will get between two and four a year. Children are estimated to get them up to eight times a year.

They are spread by coughing and sneezing, and are largely caused by rhinoviruses.

The common cold is more mild than the flu which is caused by other viruses.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of a cold are a runny nose, sore throat, coughing, sneezing and feeling off colour.

You may also have a headache, sore eyes, and a fever in some cases.

A cold can last a few days to up to 10 days.

It is important to get medical advice if you are concerned or not improving as other more serious illnesses can start out with similar symptoms.

See your doctor if you develop an ear infection (pain), chest pain, or have difficulty breathing. Severe headache or very high fevers would also be reasons to seek medical advice sooner.

What can be done to help?

There is a saying that a cold lasts 7 days if it is treated and 7 days if it is not. There is no proven cure for a cold, despite extensive research to find one.

Relief of the symptoms is the main beneficial treatment. Paracetamol can be used to reduce discomfort. Cough medicine can help to control coughing.

Breathing in steam from a bowl may help to relieve a blocked nose.

Gargling aspirin can help to relieve a sore throat.

Don't give aspirin to children under 12 (rare association with a serious disorder called Reye's syndrome).

Many over the counter pharmacy remedies are not believed to work in under five years olds but are effective in adolescents and adults.

Potential treatments for the common cold have been developed. These include: antihistamines, inhaled anticholinergics, adrenergic agonists (potent decongestants), and zinc supplements.

There continues to be debate over the role of vitamin C in treating colds. One review of studies of vitamin C found that the vitamin reduced the length and symptoms of a cold by 23 percent, however, an ideal dose has not been identified.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin can help relieve headaches and associated aches and pains.

Antibiotics are only believed to be effective if the patient also has a bacterial infection.

How can it be prevented?

The common cold is very contagious and avoiding one is difficult.

A strong immune system can help to prevent infection, and this requires exercise, a healthy diet, and good sleep.

Antiviral drugs like interferon alfa-2b have been shown to be somewhat effective at preventing a cold, but only if they are taken before the cold symptoms develop.

Aqueous iodine applied to fingers has also been shown to help prevent a cold in susceptible groups, but this is considered impractical because the substance stains the fingers. Another similar substance, which does not stain, could be developed in the future.

Future trends

Other drugs called mast cell stablisers have shown good results in preliminary trials but there have been no large studies undertaken to evaluate them.

Getting help

See your doctor if the illness does not improve after a few days, or if more severe symptoms develop.

See also:

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