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.
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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.
(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 steam. However, there are potential risks associated with carrying around and breathing in steam from boiling water. It's better to sit in the bathroom (outside the shower) with the shower running hot water to create steam. Read more about steam inhalation and other ways to manage a blocked nose.
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, throat lozenges and decongestants. Always talk to your healthcare provider before taking medicines to help with the symptoms of 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:
If your lips, skin or nails look blue, or you’re feeling confused, it is important to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Image credit: Te Whatu Ora
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:
- avoid close contact with people who have a cold
- keep your hands away from your nose and mouth
- eat a healthy diet
- get plenty of rest
- quit smoking
- be physically active
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 factsheet(external link) Health Promotion Agency, NZ & Healthify NZ
The difference between influenza and a cold(external link) Ministry of Health NZ, 2013
Cold or flu? Know the difference [PDF, 327 KB] Health Direct, Australia, 2016
Common cold – Fact sheet(external link) Lung Foundation, Australia, 2013
Your family & antibiotics: What you need to know(external link) PHARMAC, NZ
Coughs, colds and sore-throats – manage symptoms without antibiotics(external link) Choosing Wisely, NZ
What to do when you have a cold [PDF, 167 KB] Bruce Arroll, Goodfellow Unit presentation, 2017
Virus action plan (adult)(external link) He Ako Hiringa, NZ, 2023 te reo Māori(external link), Samoan(external link), Tongan(external link), Arabic [PDF, 188 KB], Hindi(external link), Chinese (simplified) (external link)
Virus action plan (child)(external link) He Ako Hiringa, NZ, 2023 te reo Māori(external link), Samoan(external link), Tongan(external link), Arabic [PDF, 214 KB], Hindi(external link), Chinese (simplified) (external link)
Information for managing seasonal viral illness (“Cold & Flu”)(external link) BPAC, 2023
- Cold season in primary care(external link) BPAC, NZ, 2013
- Colds(external link) Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
- How do I treat my child's cold? (9 - 30 months)(external link) NHS, UK, 2020
- Common cold(external link) Lung Foundation, Australia, 2013
- Cold season: managing without antibiotics(external link) BPAC, NZ, 2018
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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