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Common Cold

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What is a cold? Is it the flu?

A cold is a virus that infects the upper respiratory tract, hence being also known as an ‘upper respiratory tract infection’ or ‘URTI’. The virus is generally breathed in from particles or from the droplets from someone who has a cold.

It is the most common type of infection seen by GPs, especially during the winter months. It is not to be confused by the influenza virus (the flu) which has similar symptoms but can be more serious and threatening.

Why do I feel so rough?

The cold virus infection can cause varying symptoms in both children adults of malaise, tiredness and discomfort and can be quite significant, so should not be dismissed.

The reason for the symptoms is that the virus, which multiplies in cells lining the respiratory tract, causes a significant inflammatory and immune response leading to localised pain and secretions (causing mucus) as well as an increase in the body’s core temperature (fever), nerve ending activation (generalised aches), increased energy expenditure (tiredness) as well as dehydration and malaise.

The symptoms of a cold can be quite varied between people and each infection, including:

  • Runny & blocked nose – localised nasal passage swelling and mucus production.
  • Sinus/facial pain – congestion in the sinuses
  • Sore throat & hoarseness – inflammation of the throat, or pharynx and larynx.
  • Cough – usually mucus dripping down the back of the throat or inflammation of the windpipe, or trachea.
  • Aches – headaches and muscle aches from the immune reaction
  • Shivers and fevers – immune response to the infection

Surely I need antibiotics

This is an often contentious issue since some bacterial infections (such as pneumonia, bacterial tonsillitis or bacterial sinusitis) have similar symptoms to a cold but are much rarer.

A cold/viral URTI will not get better with antibiotics since this infection is not caused by a bacteria (the infective organisms that antibiotics kill and cure).

Understandably people with upper respiratory infections are eager to secure a rapid curative treatment to cease the illness, and so are in favour of taking antibiotics for the chance it will help. An assessment by a GP should be able to discover if it is a bacterial or viral infection and thus whether antibiotics will help or not.

To find out more click here.


There is no curative treatment for a cold since it is a tricky virus to stop multiplying. You can be rest assured that despite feeling very unwell with a cold, the body’s own natural defense mechanisms will beat off the virus, so it is a self limiting infection, ending in any amount of time between 2-14 days.

Self management steps we advise depend on the specific symptoms but mainly include hydration, rest and paracetamol. More specifics include:

  • Blocked nose and sinus pain –
    • Steam inhalation at least 3 times a day (click here for instructions)
    • Decongestant medications such as sudafed, codral or lemsip decongestant (not for elderly or those with cardiac arrhythmias)
    • Saline nasal sprays, or better still nasal flushes, eg Fess.
  • Sore throat –
    • Simple painkillers such as paracetamol and/or ibuprofen.
    • Warm drinks such as tea.
    • Gargles or sprays of anti-inflammatory products such as difflam or betadine.
    • Lozenges with soothing local anaesthetic and/or anti-inflammatory action.
  • Muscle pains & Headaches – 
    • Simple painkillers such as paracetamol 1g 4x per day and/or ibuprofen 400mg up to 3x per day.
  • Fevers – 
    • Paracetamol and ibuprofen (as above) bring the core body temperature back to normal and reduce the malaise associated.
    • Cold flannels
  • Cough – 
    • Honey and lemon
    • Linctuses,eg bisolvon
    • Steam inhalation, as described above, reduces the post nasal drip of mucus from the nasal passages.
    • Sleeping slightly propped up.


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