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Cold or flu

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Learn more about cold or flu: common cold

You can often treat a cold without seeing your GP. You should begin to feel better in about a week or two.

Check if you have a cold

Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include:

  • blocked or runny nose
  • 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.

Telling the difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu symptoms are similar but flu tends to be more severe.

Cold Flu
Appears gradually Appears quickly within a few hours
Affects mainly your nose and throat Affects more than just your nose and throat
Makes you feel unwell but you’re okay to carry on as normal – for example, go to work Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal

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

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:

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

Be careful not to use cough and cold medicines if you’re taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as it’s 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, zinc, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery.

Find a pharmacy

See a GP if:

See a GP if:

  • your symptoms don't improve after three weeks
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • you're concerned about your child's symptoms
  • you're finding it hard to breathe or develop chest pain
  • you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you're having chemotherapy

Antibiotics

GPs don't recommend antibiotics for colds because they won't relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections and colds are caused by viruses.

How to avoid spreading a cold

Colds are caused by viruses and easily spread to other people. You're infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes a week or two.

Colds are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.

To reduce the risk of spreading a cold:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible

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've come into contact with the virus – it can infect the body this way
  • staying fit and healthy

The flu vaccine helps prevent the flu but not colds.

See how to wash your hands correctly
Media last reviewed: 30/03/2017
Next review due: 30/03/2020
Content supplied by the NHS website

Learn more about cold or flu: treatment

You can manage cold symptoms yourself by following some simple advice. You'll normally start to feel better within 7 to 10 days.

General advice

Until you're feeling better, it may help to:

  • drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost from sweating and having a runny nose 
  • get plenty of rest
  • eat healthily – a low-fat, high-fibre diet is recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables

You may lose your appetite when you have a cold. This is perfectly normal and should only last a few days. Don't force yourself to eat if you're not feeling hungry.

You may also wish to try some of the medications and remedies described below to help relieve your symptoms.

Over-the-counter cold medications

The main medications used to treat cold symptoms are:

  • painkillers  – such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, which can help relieve aches and a high temperature (fever)
  • decongestants  – which may help relieve a blocked nose
  • cold medicines  – containing a combination of painkillers and decongestants

These medications are available from pharmacies without a prescription. They're generally safe for older children and adults to take, but might not be suitable for babies, young children, pregnant women, people with certain underlying health conditions, and people taking certain other medications.

Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine before taking it, and follow the recommended dosage instructions. If you're not sure which treatments are suitable for you or your child, speak to a pharmacist for advice.

More information about over-the-counter cold medicines is provided below.

Painkillers

Paracetamol and ibuprofen can help reduce a fever and also act as painkillers. Aspirin may also help, but it isn't normally recommended for a cold and should never be given to children under the age of 16.

If your child has a cold, look for age-appropriate versions of paracetamol and ibuprofen (usually in liquid form). Always follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure the correct dose is given.

Taking both ibuprofen and paracetamol at the same time is not usually necessary for a cold and should be avoided in children as using both together may be unsafe. 

Read more about giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen are also included in some cold medicines. If you're taking painkillers and want to also take a cold medicine, check the patient information leaflet first or ask your pharmacist or GP for advice to avoid exceeding the recommended dose.

If you're pregnant, paracetamol is the preferred choice to treat mild to moderate pain and fever.

Read more about taking paracetamol during pregnancy and taking ibuprofen during pregnancy.

Decongestants

Decongestants can be taken by mouth (oral decongestants), or as drops or a spray into your nose (nasal decongestants). They can help make breathing easier by reducing the swelling inside your nose.

However, they're generally only effective for a short period and they can make your blocked nose worse if they're used for more than a week.

Decongestants are not recommended for children under six years old and children under 12 years old shouldn't take them unless advised by a pharmacist or GP. They're also not suitable for people with certain underlying conditions and those taking certain medications.

Read more about who can use decongestant medication.

Other remedies

The remedies outlined below may also help relieve your symptoms.

Gargling and menthol sweets

Some people find gargling with salt water and sucking on menthol sweets can help relieve a sore throat and blocked nose.

Vapour rubs

Vapour rubs can help babies and young children breathe more easily when they have a cold. Apply the rub to your child's chest and back. Don't apply it to their nostrils because this could cause irritation and breathing difficulties.

Only use products that say they can be used by children and babies – ask a pharmacist if you're not sure.

Nasal saline drops

Nasal saline (salt water) drops can help relieve a blocked nose in babies and young children.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

There is some evidence to suggest that taking zinc supplements within a day of the symptoms starting will speed up recovery from a cold and reduce the severity of symptoms.

However, there is currently little evidence to suggest that taking vitamin C supplements is beneficial when a cold starts.

Treatments not recommended

The following treatments aren't usually recommended to treat colds because there isn't strong evidence to suggest they're effective, and they may cause unpleasant side effects:

Content supplied by the NHS website

Learn more about cold or flu: flu

You can often treat the flu without seeing your GP and should begin to feel better in about a week.

Check if you have flu

Flu symptoms come on very quickly and can include:

  • a sudden fever – a temperature of 38C or above
  • aching body
  • feeling tired or exhausted
  • dry, chesty cough
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea or tummy pain
  • nausea and being sick

The symptoms are similar for children, but they can also get pain in their ear and appear less active.

Telling the difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu symptoms are similar, but flu tends to be more severe.

Flu Cold
Appears quickly within a few hours Appears gradually
Affects more than just your nose and throat Affects mainly your nose and throat
Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal Makes you feel unwell, but you're OK to carry on as normal (for example, go to work)

How to treat flu yourself

To help you get better more quickly:

  • rest and sleep
  • keep warm
  • take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower your temperature and treat aches and pains
  • drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration (your pee should be light yellow or clear)

A pharmacist can help with flu

A pharmacist can give treatment advice and recommend flu remedies.

Be careful not to use flu remedies if you're taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as it's easy to take more than the recommended dose.

Speak to a pharmacist before giving medicines to children.

Find a pharmacy

See a GP if:

Call NHS 111 or see your GP if:

  • you're worried about your baby's or child's symptoms
  • you're 65 or over
  • you're pregnant
  • you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or HIV
  • your symptoms don't improve after 7 days

Antibiotics

GPs don't recommend antibiotics for flu because they won't relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Call 999 or go to A&E if you:

  • develop sudden chest pain
  • have difficulty breathing
  • start coughing up blood

How to avoid spreading the flu

Flu is very infectious and easily spread to other people. You're more likely to give it to others in the first 5 days.

Flu is spread by germs from coughs and sneezes, which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.

To reduce the risk of spreading flu:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible
See how to wash your hands correctly
Media last reviewed: 30/03/2017
Next review due: 30/03/2020

How to prevent flu

The flu vaccine reduces the risk of catching flu, as well as spreading it to others.

It's more effective to get the vaccine before the start of the flu season (December to March).

Find out if you're eligible for the free NHS flu vaccine

Flu vaccination and side effects for adults

Flu vaccination and side effects for children

Content supplied by the NHS website