We all get colds from time to time, and most of us get better after a few days. Commonsense self-care measures and over-the-counter medicines can be helpful in relieving symptoms, even if they tend not to help you get better faster.

Prescription medicines such as antibiotics are generally not needed for simple colds, but occasionally people do develop complications that require further treatment.

Colds are not flu

People commonly talk about ‘having the flu’ when they are actually suffering from a cold.

Colds and flu are both caused by viruses, however, the flu — influenza — is a serious illness that can be life-threatening, especially for the very young, old or immunocompromised. The common cold rarely causes serious harm.

The difference between colds and flu

The symptoms of flu usually start suddenly with a high fever, headache, all-over muscle aches, runny nose, sore throat and cough, and people often feel so unwell that they take to their bed straightaway. The onset of a common cold is usually slower and the symptoms are usually restricted to the nose and throat.

Common cold symptoms include sneezing, coughing, a sore throat and a blocked or runny nose. If fever is present, it is usually mild.

Most common colds get better in 7 to 10 days, although the cough may last 1-2 weeks longer than other symptoms. Green or yellow mucus may come from the nose which shows that the immune system is fighting the infection. It does not necessarily mean that your cold is getting worse or that you have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.

How is the common cold spread?

Common colds are caused by infectious agents called viruses. The viruses can be spread from people’s hands and objects such as door handles, light switches, taps, toys and tissues, and also by breathing in droplets from sneezes or coughs.

How can you avoid getting the flu or common cold?

Taking a few sensible precautions can help you stay healthy during winter. To give yourself the best chance of avoiding catching colds and flu, try the following.

  • Frequently wash your hands, especially before eating.
  • Keep your fingers away from your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid sharing cups, glasses and cutlery.
  • Avoid close contact with cold sufferers.
  • Make sure you get immunised against influenza just before winter every year to avoid getting the flu. The flu vaccine is very effective in protecting you against the flu, however you can still catch a cold, because colds are not caused by the influenza virus, but by many different cold viruses.

If you have a cold, take the following steps to prevent others from catching it.

  • Wash your hands with soap, especially after blowing your nose or before preparing food.
  • Cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing. Use a tissue or the inside of your elbow to cover your mouth and nose, rather than your hands.
  • Blow your nose on tissues and dispose of them after use.
  • Avoid sharing cups, glasses and cutlery.
  • If possible have some time off and stay at home until you feel better.

Will antibiotics help a cold to get better faster?

Antibiotics only work on infections caused by bacteria and have no effect on viruses. So antibiotics have no effect on cold (or flu) viruses — your immune system can fight these viruses.

Antibiotics won’t stop your cold from getting worse and will not stop infection spreading to other people. Importantly, using antibiotics when you don’t need them may make them less effective when you do need them – this is known as antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are also associated with side effects such as diarrhoea, thrush and nausea. Some people have allergic reactions to certain antibiotics.

Sometimes colds are complicated by another infection, such as an ear or throat infection. These infections may be caused by bacteria or viruses. When they are caused by bacteria, antibiotics may have a place in treatment. Some examples include:

  • middle ear infection (otitis media), which can cause severe earache in children;
  • severe tonsillitis;
  • chest infections; and
  • sinusitis, which may cause facial pain and a thick discharge from the nose.

However, these illnesses also tend to get better by themselves, and antibiotics are needed only in some cases. If you have a high fever or your symptoms have become worse after an initial improvement, antibiotics may be needed.

Practical ways to relieve the symptoms of common colds

Try the following tips to help you feel better when you have a cold.

Take it easy

Help your immune system: get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.

Clearing mucus or a runny nose

  • Salt water (saline) sprays and drops can help clear mucus from your nasal passages and sinuses.
  • Applying a vapour rub to the chest may help relieve congestion of the nose.
  • Decongestants, which come as sprays or tablets can help dry up a runny nose. Check the label to make sure it’s safe to use a decongestant, especially for children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Prolonged use of decongestants (more than 5-7 days) should be avoided.

If you decide to use a decongestant or other cold and flu medicine, make sure you check with your doctor or pharmacist that the medicine is appropriate for you. Also, take the medicine according to the instructions and check the ingredients to make sure you are not accidentally doubling up on anything. For example, many cold and flu medicines contain pain relievers, so it’s important not to take additional pain relievers at the same time.

Soothing a sore throat

  • Gargle with warm, salty water or suck an ice cube or a throat lozenge.
  • Pain-relieving medicines such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin may ease the pain of a sore throat. Check the label to ensure the medicine is suitable. Remember NEVER to give aspirin to anyone under 18 years of age unless prescribed by your doctor, as it can (rarely) cause serious harm.

Using vitamins, minerals, herbal and natural medicines

All medicines, including supplements and complementary medicines, can have unwanted effects and interactions with other medicines. In addition, some complementary medicines may not have been tested in the same way as prescription medicines, especially in children.

Complementary medicines that have been used to treat the common cold include the following.

  • Vitamin C may reduce the duration or severity of cold symptoms if taken before a cold starts, but has not been shown to prevent colds.
  • Zinc lozenges may shorten the length of a cold and reduce symptom severity if taken when cold symptoms first start. Zinc can have side effects, so check with your doctor before taking it.
  • Echinacea preparations differ greatly and many have not been tested in good-quality clinical trials. Echinacea has not yet been shown to help prevent or treat colds.

Seeing your doctor when you have a cold

See your doctor if:

  • your symptoms come on suddenly;
  • symptoms are severe or last longer than usual; or
  • you have other health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, that tend to worsen during a cold.

You should also see your doctor if you are worried at all or have any symptoms that suggest you or your child may have developed complications following a common cold, such as a persistent cough, difficulty breathing, high fevers, vomiting or severe tiredness.

For more information on medicines to treat colds

  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Telephone the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 633 424, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, for confidential, independent information about medicines for consumers.