What is a cold?
A cold is a viral infection which affects the nose, ears and throat. There are more than 200 different types of viruses that can cause the common cold.
Colds normally last a few days and are not usually serious. However they can lead to other infections, especially in children.
Young children, for example those under 3, tend to catch colds more frequently than adults because their immune systems are not yet fully developed. You can get one cold after another because there are so many different viruses circulating.
The common cold is not the same as the flu, also known as influenza. The flu is caused by a different virus (influenza A or B). Influenza is much more serious than a cold and can be life-threatening.
How are colds spread?
Colds are spread when a person breathes in the virus that has been coughed or sneezed into the air by an infectious person. People can also catch colds by touching an infectious person’s hand and then touching their own eyes, nose or mouth.
Transmission of colds is common in daycare and at schools due to the presence of many children with under-developed immune systems and without best hygiene practices.
Viruses can survive for prolonged periods in the environment, in some cases more than 18 hours.
Signs and symptoms
Colds usually mean you get a combination of:
- runny or blocked nose
- sore throat
- fever (occasionally)
Symptoms normally only last a few days and most people fully recover without any ongoing problems after 7 to 10 days.
Coloured discharge (green or yellow) from the nose may occur in young children. This should be assessed by a doctor if it does not clear within a few days or if the child has a persistent fever and becomes more irritable.
Do I need to see a doctor?
It is not usually necessary for adults to see a doctor for a common cold infection if they have no medical at risk factors.
However, babies and very young children (under 3) need to be monitored to ensure the cold does not progress to a chest infection.
You should see your doctor if you or your child have severe symptoms such as:
- persistent coloured discharge from the nose
- difficulty breathing
- high fever that does not respond to paracetamol.
- vomiting frequently
- intense headache
- persistent cough.
Treatment of colds
There are no specific medications that can cure the common cold, but there are some simple ways you can effectively relieve your symptoms.
For young children and babies, talk to your chemist who will advise you depending on your child’s symptoms.
In adults, paracetamol is effective for fever and mild pain, and is a common ingredient in many cold and flu medications.
Nasal decongestants can also help to ease a blocked nose. These medications can make it easier to breathe but they should only be used by adults and should not be given to young children or babies.
Sore throats can be relieved with sipping on a warm drink with lemon and honey, gargling salt water and sucking a lozenge.
Make sure that you check the active ingredients on all product labels to ensure that you do not take a ‘double dose’ or accidentally give one to your child. Talk to your chemist if you are unsure about this.
Always ask your doctor or chemist for advice before using medications, to make sure that they are safe for you or your child.
How can colds be prevented?
Adopt good personal hygiene to help protect your health:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Throw tissues in the bin after you use them.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol based hand cleaners are also effective.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Wash your hands before preparing food.
- Try to avoid close contact with people who have colds.
- If you have a cold, stay home from work or school and limit contact with other people to keep from infecting them.
- Wash your child’s toys frequently to remove traces of the any viruses.
- Keep your child home in the first few days that they develop a cold to stop them infecting others.
Visit the National Prescribing Service (external site) for more information on common colds and over-the-counter treatments.
Where to get help
- Speak to your chemist about over-the-counter treatments.
- Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
- See your doctor or visit a GP after hours if your symptoms are severe.
- Colds are caused by over 200 different viruses.
- There is no cure, but most symptoms can be relieved.
- Antibiotics do not cure a cold, but if symptoms do not improve in babies or young children see your doctor.
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.