A cold is a general term used to refer to a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. Adults generally get 2-4 colds a year with children often getting 3-8 a year.
The first symptom of a cold is usually a sore or irritated throat followed by:
a blocked nose (nasal congestion) – caused by a build up of phlegm or mucus (catarrh)
nasal pain and irritation
a runny nose (nasal discharge) – the discharge is usually clear and runny at first before becoming thicker and darker over the course of the infection
coughing – this symptom occurs in one out of every three cases
a hoarse voice
a general sense of feeling unwell
Symptoms are usually at their worst during the first two to three days before they gradually start to improve. In adults and older children, the cold will usually last for about a week as the body fights off the infection, but they can last up to two weeks in younger children. The cough caused by a cold can continue for 2-3 weeks after the infection, and other symptoms have cleared.
Colds are caused by viruses which attack the lining of the nose and throat, inflaming these areas. As they become inflamed, they begin to produce more mucus, resulting in a runny nose and sneezing. Colds can be easily spread when you cough or sneeze.
To prevent the spread of colds:
wash your hands regularly and properly
always sneeze and cough into tissues and dispose of them immediately.
clean surfaces regularly
use your own cup, plates, cutlery and kitchen utensils
use disposable paper towels to dry your hands and face
Antibiotics do not work against the cold as they are caused by viruses.
Over-the-counter cold medication:
These will often contain a painkiller such as paracetamol or ibuprofen and a decongestant to help reduce the swelling in the nasal passages and help breathing. Decongestants are also available as a nasal spray – these should not be used for more than seven days as prolonged use can make your congestion worse. Some remedies may also contain an anti-histamine to help dry up the sinuses. These can make you drowsy so care is needed if you are driving or operating machinery.
This type of medication will help control the symptoms of a cold but do not help to fight off the infection. Decongestants are not suitable for children under six years old.
Products containing Echinaca purpurea can help reduce the severity of symptoms and speed up recovery. Echinacea products are not recommended for use in children.
Taking a zinc supplement within a day of the symptoms starting have been shown to lessen the severity of symptoms and speed up recovery.
Recent evidence has shown that taking Vitamin C does not prevent people catching the cold, but it might speed up recovery.