The common cold affects most people at some stage in their life. Colds can last from 5-7 days. Young children get more colds than adults because their immune systems are still developing. Elderly and chronically ill people are also more likely to catch a cold easily.
The common cold is an infection of the nasal passages and throat. It is caused by viruses. The cold viruses are always changing - this season’s cold virus will probably be different to next season’s. That is why it is difficult to develop a cure. Antibiotics do not kill viruses so your doctor will not prerscribe an antibiotic unless your cold has become a bacterial infection (see later). Your own immune system is your best defence against cold viruses. Cold viruses are spread by saliva droplets which are sprayed through the air by talking, sneezing and coughing.
Signs and symptoms
- Symptoms start 1-4 days after catching the viruses.
- Dry or sore throat-usually the first sign-may come a day or so before the other symptoms.
- Runny nose - clear and watery to start with then gets thicker.
- Nasal congestion (blocked nose) - babies may have difficulty feeding.
Sneezing - this is your body’s attempt to clear the nasal passages (nose). Sneezing with a cold will usually only last up to 24 hours.
Cough - may be dry or phlegm producing.
Hoarseness - rough voice or loss of voice as viruses cause swelling of the vocal cords (voice box).
Headache - some people may also get a headache and in some cases this may be due to a blocked nose.
Some people can confuse hay fever with colds.
Hayfever is due to an allergy (see Hayfever fact card). With hayfever you tend to sneeze continuously, the mucus from your nose is more watery and you don’t get a fever.
The flu is a more severe infection and is also caused by viruses. The flu will come on very quickly and will often be accompanied by very sore achy muscles and a high fever. It also tends to last longer than a cold (about 1-3 weeks). With the flu you can not do as much activity but with a cold, even though you feel miserable, you can still do simple chores. New prescription only medicines are available for the flu but they need to be taken within 24-48 hours of your symptoms for the best effect. Flu vaccinations can help to prevent you getting the flu from the previous year’s viruses. These are available from your doctor for a cost, but are free for some people, for example if you are over 65 years of age, or have a chronic medical condition e.g. diabetes, heart conditions. Check with your doctor or LIFE pharmacist.
Sometimes colds develop into something more serious, especially when you get a bacterial infection on top of the viral infection. The bacteria can cause some of the following infections:
- Severe throat infections - glands in the throat and neck may swell up and be painful.
- Otitis media (middle ear infection) - seen more often in children when the infection spreads up the nasal passages to the middle ear. The ears are painful.
- Sinusitis - infection spreads up to the sinuses (in the forehead). Fever and facial pain can occur.
- Pneumonia - infection travels down the air passages to the lungs. A persistent cough, (with or without phlegm), that hangs around could be a sign.
See your doctor if:
- You or a baby or child, develop any of the complications mentioned above.
- A simple cold has not got better after about a week.
- You have fever of 38 degrees centigrade or higher.
- You have chest pain.
- You have dark green phlegm or the discharge from your nose is smelly.
- You cough up blood.
Although there is no cure for colds, you can treat the symptoms which will help to make you feel better. You will still have the cold.
- Rest in bed for a few days if you have a bad cold.
- Drink 6-8 glasses of fluid each day preferably water, fruit juice or soup. This will help to keep the mucous more liquid.
- Breathe in steam. (ask your LIFE pharmacist about vaporisers and inhalants).
- Stop smoking as smoke can irritate your lungs and increase the mucus production.
- Avoid spreading the infection by staying at home to rest and recover.
- Wash your hands and use tissues instead of handkerchiefs.
- Apply barrier creams to your nose to protect the dry sore skin.
- Sore throat - soothed by lozenges, gargles or sprays.
- Runny nose - a watery runny nose can be dried up with a decongestant (available as oral tablets, or nasal drops and sprays).
- Blocked nose - can be relieved by decongestants. You can use saline drops for babies.
- Fever - pain relievers help to lower your temperature as well as ease the pain e.g. paracetamol and aspirin.
- Dry cough - can be relieved by a cough suppressant.
- Productive cough - an expectorant can help to loosen the phlegm to make it easier to cough up.
Decongestant nasal sprays are just as effective as decongestant tablets and don’t dry up your mouth as much. A small number of people misuse the decongestant medicine pseudoephedrine. To help control this problem most pharmacies have a policy to restrict sales of pseudoephedrine and may suggest an alternative product. Do not be offended if they do.
Antibiotics will not help any of the symptoms of a viral cold. Your doctor will only prescribe an antibiotic if your cold becomes complicated by one of the bacterial infections mentioned earlier.
Decongestant nose drops or sprays should not be used for more than 5 days in a row if they are used for longer than this you may get rebound congestion where your nose may become even more blocked than when you started.
Do not double up
Some cold preparations contain pain relievers such as paracetamol. If you take one of these medicines you should not take paracetamol separately. Most cough and cold preparations contain similar ingredients. Therefore it is important to check with your LIFE pharmacist before buying more than one product so you don’t double up, (e.g. cough mixture plus head cold tablet). Always remember to check with your LIFE pharmacist first.
Know what symptoms you are treating, what medicine you are using and what it is doing. Your LIFE pharmacist will help you to choose the right medicine for your symptoms.
Make sure to tell your LIFE pharmacist what other medicines you take, or if you are pregnant, breast feeding or have a medical condition e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, asthma, glaucoma, heart disease or depression. The decongestant pseudoephedrine can interact with some prescribed medicines.