Headcold Symptoms & Relief

A head cold typically causes nasal congestion, a sore throat and headaches. In most cases, symptoms aren’t a cause for concern and should clear up after a few days.

Adults typically catch two to three colds a year, usually during the colder months – although it’s possible to catch a cold at any time of year. Children can get between five and six colds a year.

A head cold can be treated at home with rest and over-the-counter medicines to alleviate any uncomfortable symptoms, such as congestion. Colds shouldn’t usually require a visit to a GP.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • What is a head cold?

  • Symptoms of a head cold

  • Causes of a head cold

  • How to get rid of a head cold

  • Frequently asked questions

What is a head cold?

A head cold is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. Often referred to as the common cold, the symptoms of a head cold usually appear in the sinuses and nasal passages.

Symptoms are typically mild, but they can leave you feeling tired, congested and rundown. Tell-tale symptoms may include nasal congestion (often referred to as a blocked nose), pressure in the sinuses and a headache. You may also have a high temperature, ear ache, muscle pain and loss of taste and smell. A cold usually lasts for a week at most, although those with a weakened immune system or pre-existing condition might find that symptoms go on for longer.

There are more than 200 types of virus that cause common cold symptoms, 30-35% of colds are caused by rhinoviruses – and they’re often passed from person to person. You might catch a head cold from touching an infected surface, such as a door handle, or being in the vicinity of someone who already has the virus. The virus is most often spread through hand-to-hand contact.

Symptoms of a head cold

The symptoms of a head cold are very common and, although frustrating and uncomfortable, are usually nothing to worry about. Chances are that you’ve suffered from a rhinovirus infection before and will be familiar with the feelings of a blocked nose, sinus pain and headaches.

It’s likely that you’ll feel the symptoms in:

  • Your head

  • Your sinus

  • Your nose

  • Your throat

  • Your muscles

Head cold symptoms appear one to three days after your initial infection. They can include:

A blocked or runny nose

A blocked nose is caused by inflamed and swollen blood vessels in your sinuses and nasal passage. A blocked, or stuffy, nose is among the more common symptoms of a head cold.

A sore throat

A dry, itchy throat is one of the first symptoms to appear when suffering from a head cold. A sore throat might make it difficult or painful to swallow.


Headaches can be painful and are usually linked to the build-up of pressure in your sinuses. You might feel a headache behind your sinuses or your eyes.

Muscle aches

The common cold can leave you feeling tired and rundown. Your muscles might ache and feel heavy. Muscle aches and stiffness are more common in the neck and upper back. Pain in the muscles is caused by inflammation as your immune system works to fight off the infection, leaving them tired.


Coughing is a common symptom too. The rhinovirus infection is spread via coughing and sneezing. When you cough or sneeze, infectious droplets enter the air. Make sure to cough or sneeze into a tissue, dispose of it, and then thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and soap.


You might find that you sneeze more often. Sneezing is another way that this airborne virus spreads between people.

A raised temperature

A raised temperature is the body’s way of trying to get rid of the virus itself. You might find that your temperature rises as high as 38°C. If you have a higher temperature, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.

Pressure in your ears and face

You might feel a build-up of pressure behind your eyes, or in your ears. This is linked to the inflammation of your sinuses and nasal passages. You might even find it difficult to hear while you have a cold, as swelling can keep the passages linking your ears and nose from opening.

Loss of taste and smell

People suffering from a head cold might also experience temporary loss of taste and smell due to the infection.

How long does a head cold last?

A head cold can last anywhere between 3 days to 2 weeks, depending on its severity. Some people with weakened immune systems or pre-existing conditions may feel ill for longer. Children may also have more persistent symptoms.

If you have symptoms for longer than three weeks, contact your GP or another medical professional.

Head cold or sinusitis?

Sore throat, headaches and swollen sinuses are all signs of a head cold. However, they’re symptoms that are also shared with a sinus infection. A sinus infection, or sinusitis, can be more serious than a head cold and, in some cases, can require a visit to the GP.

Sinusitis is caused by swelling and inflammation of the sinuses, this is most commonly caused by a viral infection, such as the common cold. In some cases, the swelling can cause a bacterial infection as the sinuses can't drain properly, which may require a visit to the doctor.

Symptoms usually clear up on their own within two to three weeks. However, if your symptoms are severe, get worse, or do not improve after a week, you should see a doctor.

When to see a doctor

Most head colds don’t require a visit to the doctor and can be treated at home with rest and over-the-counter medicine to alleviate symptoms.

However, you may need to visit your GP if:

  • You have symptoms for longer than three weeks.

  • Your symptoms worsen over time.

  • Your temperature exceeds 38°C.

  • You have pain in your chest or difficulty breathing through your mouth.

  • You have pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes.

  • You have a weakened immune system, such as when undergoing chemotherapy.

  • You are concerned about your child’s symptoms, or your child has any of the above.

Causes of a head cold

There are number of viruses that cause head colds, with rhinovirus being of the most common viruses you can catch. The virus can spread easily –either via airborne droplets coughed or sneezed out by someone already carrying the illness or by touching an infected surface, such as a door handle.

Most people get at least one cold a year and they can be difficult to avoid. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce your chances of catching one.

  • Wash your hands regularly, especially after using shared access areas like a workplace bathroom or public transport.

  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, preferably with a tissue.

  • Dispose of any used tissues as soon as possible.

  • Avoid sharing items such as cups, pens or a computer keyboard with someone who has cold-like symptoms.

  • Avoid touching your mouth and eyes when you’re near someone who has cold-like symptoms.

  • Try and stay generally fit and well by eating a varied, balanced diet, drinking water and getting enough sleep.

How to get rid of a head cold

There are several ways to help alleviate the symptoms of a head cold while you wait for it to pass. Alongside a variety of potential home remedies, you might want to use an over-the-counter medicine such as one from the SUDAFED® Congestion & Headache Relief range.

Rest and sleep

Getting enough rest and sleep is crucial to recovering from a head cold faster. Most adults need around eight hours of sleep a night. You may find it difficult to breathe while lying down in bed because of your blocked nasal passages. SUDAFED® Congestion & Headache Day & Night Capsules can help clear your airways. You can also try raising your head up with an extra pillow.

A humidifier

Using a humidifier to blow humid air into your room might help reduce the discomfort caused by symptoms like a dry, itchy throat. Humid air can reduce the feeling of pressure from blocked sinuses and can help clear your nasal passages.

Warm compress

Placing a warm compress or flannel over the bridge of your nose can help to stimulate the flow of mucus in your sinuses and nasal passages, which may help to reduce the pressure build-up you feel in your head.

Flushing out your sinuses

Alternatively, you can stimulate the flow of mucus by hanging your head over a bowl of steaming water:

  1. Boil water and pour into a heatproof bowl.

  2. Once the water has cooled a little, hang your head over the water and breathe the steam in slowly. Only do this if the steam has cooled enough to be a comfortable, warm temperature.

  3. You could drape a towel over your head to ensure the steam doesn’t escape into other areas of the room.

Plenty of fluids

Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Water is best, but you could also have a vitamin-rich fruit juice mixed with water.

Taking a decongestant

Decongestants can provide temporary relief from the symptoms of a head cold. SUDAFED® Congestion & Headache Day & Night Capsules are designed to ease the pain of a headache and make it easier for you to breathe at night. SUDAFED® Congestion & Headache Relief Max Strength Capsules soothes stuffy noses and heavy congestion for a more comfortable feeling.

At SUDAFED® we’ve spent over 30 years developing leading over-the-counter treatments for congestion and cold relief.

Some of our treatments contain phenylephrine, a decongestant formulated for clearing nasal passages and making it easier to breathe. Some of our decongestant tablets also include paracetamol, which can help alleviate painful headaches and muscle aches.


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