Key points about colds

  • A cold is a viral infection that affects your head and chest, including your nose, throat, sinuses and ears. It is not the same as influenza (the flu).
  • Cold symptoms develop slowly and usually last 1–2 weeks.
  • Because a cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help (they kill bacteria, not viruses). However, there are things you can do to make you feel better.
  • For most people, a cold will not usually lead to any more serious illness.
  • You can treat most colds with rest and drinking lots of fluids such as water, but know when to see a doctor.
Woman blowing nose wrapped up on couch

COVID-19 information

If you have respiratory symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, head cold or loss of smell, with or without fever, get a test for COVID-19. Don't assume it is just a cold. If you are wanting to buy cold and flu medicines from your pharmacy don't go in if you have tested positive for COVID, or think you might have it.

Read more about COVID-19.


(Patient Info, UK, 2018)

Symptoms may include:

  • scratchy or sore throat
  • a cough
  • sneezing and a runny or blocked nose
  • watery eyes
  • blocked ears
  • a fever (temperature of 38°C or higher)
  • tiredness and headache.

You usually start having cold symptoms 1–3 days after contact with a cold virus. The cold can spread to others even before any symptoms appear.

The best way to treat a cold is to rest and drink plenty of fluid, such as water. You can also gargle salt water, sip lemon drinks or inhale hot steam.

There are no medicines that cure a cold. Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics will not help, as they kill bacteria. Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them is bad for you and causes antibiotic resistance.

However, you may feel better with medicines such as painkillers, nose drops or sprays, cough syrups and drops, throat lozenges and decongestants. Some are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women.

Vitamin C does not prevent colds but may reduce the symptoms once you’ve caught a cold.

When to see a doctor

You won’t need to see a doctor if you have a cold, unless you have the following symptoms:

  • an earache that gets more painful
  • wheezing, shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • swollen, tender glands in your neck
  • chest pain
  • skin rash
  • a sore throat that gets more painful, or has white or yellow spots
  • a cough that gets worse or becomes painful.
  • a high temperature of 39°C or above
  • shaking chills
  • a headache that lasts several days.

If your lips, skin or nails look blue, or you’re feeling confused, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible.

Regular hand washing, for 20 seconds with warm water and soap followed by 20 seconds of drying, is likely to be the best way to avoid catching a cold. 

Other things you can do include:

There is some limited evidence that probiotics, vitamin C and zinc may also help prevent colds.

It’s important not to spread your cold virus to other people. You can do this by:

  • turning away from others and using tissues when you cough or sneeze
  • washing your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
  • washing your hands often and especially before touching food, dishes, glasses and cutlery
  • using paper towels in bathrooms
  • not letting your nose or mouth touch public telephones or drinking fountains.
  • not sharing food or eating utensils with others
  • avoiding close contact with others for the first 2–4 days.


got a cold or flu find out what to do fact sheet

Got a cold or flu? Find out what to do factsheet

Health Promotion Agency, NZ & Healthify NZ

what to do when you have a cold leaflet

What to do when you have a cold

Bruce Arroll, Goodfellow Unit presentation, 2017

cold or flu infographic health direct australia 2016

Cold or flu? Know the difference

Health Direct, Australia, 2016

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Sharon Leitch, GP and Senior Lecturer, University of Otago

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