Common Cold: Symptoms & Treatment | SUDAFED®

As its name suggests, the common cold is an extremely common infection. Every year, adults usually experience two to three colds, with that number being even higher in children.

Common cold symptoms can include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • A sore throat
  • A runny, stuffy, or blocked nose
  • Headaches
  • A temperature

There’s rarely a reason to worry. Most common cold symptoms can be treated at home and should pass within two weeks without needing to see a GP.

In this guide, we’ll look at the causes and symptoms of the common cold, as well as advice on how to treat and prevent it.

What is the common cold?


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The common cold is a contagious respiratory illness, caused by over 200 different types of viral infections. On average, adults experience around two to three colds per year, with children suffering as many as five to eight.

While people tend to recover from a cold within one to two weeks without needing to see a GP, they can last longer and may require a visit to the GP if symptoms persist or suddenly worsen. While usually non-threatening, symptoms of the common cold can include congestion, sneezing, sore throats and coughing and can be uncomfortable.

What causes the common cold?

While the common cold is caused by a variety of viral infections, the most prolific are rhinoviruses, parainfluenza, and seasonal coronaviruses (not to be confused with COVID-19). The virus can be passed on by direct contact with an infected person or by touching contaminated surfaces. Droplets can also be distributed by an infected person’s coughs or sneeze, which can cause infection to those in their vicinity.

Here are some of the most notable viral infections that can lead to the common cold:

  • Rhinovirus – the most likely cause of your common cold, this virus accounts for up to 40% of all colds. Infection rates from Rhinovirus peak in late autumn, early spring, though colds in the summer months are likely to be attributed to other viruses.
  • Parainfluenza and RSV – are responsible for approximately 20% of colds. These also have the potential to lead to more severe infection in younger children.
  • Seasonal coronaviruses – these infections are most common in the winter and early spring and are thought to be responsible for roughly 20% of cases of the common cold.
  • Unknown viruses – 20-30% of adult colds have an unknown cause but are presumed to be due to unidentified viruses.

While the common cold is more likely to occur in winter months, there’s no generally accepted explanation for its seasonality.

In fact, there are many myths that have been disproven relating to the common cold. For example, there’s no evidence to suggest common colds are linked to getting cold or wet. Other than infection from another person, the few known increased risk factors are stress, or allergies that affect the throat and nose.

Common cold symptoms

A common cold’s symptoms can vary, but they typically affect the nose, throat, sinuses, and upper airways. Head colds in particular are felt in the head or sinuses, while chest colds bring on symptoms of congestion and coughs.

While common cold symptoms usually only last around10 days or less, they can be prolonged in children. Those under five years old may suffer for 10 to 14 days.

Common cold symptoms often include:


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  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Pressure in face and ears
  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Feeling generally unwell.

While more serious symptoms may present themselves – such as headaches, a high fever, or muscle aches – they may be indicative of the flu rather than a cold.

The incubation period for the common cold is active a few days before your common cold symptoms appear and you’ll remain infectious until they disappear. This means most people are infectious for around two weeks. Symptoms tend to be more pronounced in the first two to three days, which is when you’re most likely to spread the virus.

Common cold treatment and prevention

While common cold treatments exist, prevention is the best approach. There are plenty of ways to lower the risk of infection, such as washing your hands regularly, not sharing items with someone who is ill, not touching your nose or eyes, and generally staying fit and healthy.

There’s no cure for the common cold, but there are treatments available to soothe your symptoms and aid your recovery. In most cases, even if you become sick, you shouldn’t need to see a GP and instead could try:


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  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Drinking a lot of fluids
  • Gargling salt water to soothe your sore throat
  • Staying home and minimising contact with others
  • Regularly washing your hands
  • Using tissues when you cough or sneeze to contain germs and dispose of them quickly.

Over the counter medication is also available, which can help to alleviate common cold symptoms. You could consider:

Antibiotics aren’t recommended for common colds, as they’re not effective in treating viruses, so won’t help alleviate your symptoms or aid your recovery.

When to see a doctor

While most colds aren’t serious, there may be instances where you should contact your GP. These include:

  • If your symptoms suddenly worsen, or you still have symptoms after three weeks
  • You have a high temperature or feel hot and shivery
  • You develop a shortness of breath or chest pains
  • You suffer with a long-term medical condition or weakened immune system
  • You’re concerned about your child’s common cold symptoms.

Common cold FAQs

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