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Cold or flu

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Learn more about cold or flu: common cold

You can often treat a cold without seeing your GP. You should begin to feel better in about a week or two.

Check if you have a cold

Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include:

  • blocked or runny nose
  • sore throat
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • coughs
  • sneezing
  • a raised temperature
  • pressure in your ears and face
  • loss of taste and smell

The symptoms are the same in adults and children. Sometimes, symptoms last longer in children.

Telling the difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu symptoms are similar but flu tends to be more severe.

Cold Flu
Appears gradually Appears quickly within a few hours
Affects mainly your nose and throat Affects more than just your nose and throat
Makes you feel unwell but you’re okay to carry on as normal – for example, go to work Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal

How you can treat a cold yourself

To help you get better more quickly:

  • rest and sleep
  • keep warm
  • drink plenty of water (fruit juice or squash mixed with water is ok) to avoid dehydration
  • gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat

A pharmacist can help with cold medicines

You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets. A pharmacist can advise you on the best medicine.

You can:

  • relieve a blocked nose with decongestant sprays or tablets
  • ease aches or lower a temperature with painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen

Be careful not to use cough and cold medicines if you’re taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as it’s easy to take more than the recommended dose.

Some are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women.

There’s little evidence that supplements (such as vitamin c, zinc, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery.

Find a pharmacy

See a GP if:

  • your symptoms don't improve after three weeks
  • your symptoms get suddenly worse
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • you're concerned about your child's symptoms
  • you're finding it hard to breathe or develop chest pain
  • you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you're having chemotherapy

Antibiotics

GPs don't recommend antibiotics for colds because they won't relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections and colds are caused by viruses.

How to avoid spreading a cold

Colds are caused by viruses and easily spread to other people. You're infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes a week or two.

Colds are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.

To reduce the risk of spreading a cold:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible

How to prevent catching a cold

A person with a cold can start spreading it from a few days before their symptoms begin until the symptoms have finished. The best ways to avoid catching a cold are:

  • washing your hands with warm water and soap
  • not sharing towels or household items (like cups) with someone who has a cold
  • not touching your eyes or nose in case you've come into contact with the virus – it can infect the body this way
  • staying fit and healthy

The flu vaccine helps prevent the flu but not colds.

See how to wash your hands correctly
Media last reviewed: 30/03/2017
Next review due: 30/03/2020
Content supplied by NHS Choices

Learn more about cold or flu: flu

You can often treat the flu without seeing your GP and should begin to feel better in about a week.

Check if you have flu

Flu symptoms come on very quickly and can include:

  • a sudden fever – a temperature of 38C or above
  • aching body
  • feeling tired or exhausted
  • dry, chesty cough
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea or tummy pain
  • nausea and being sick

The symptoms are similar for children, but they can also get pain in their ear and appear less active.

Telling the difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu symptoms are similar, but flu tends to be more severe.

Flu Cold
Appears quickly within a few hours Appears gradually
Affects more than just your nose and throat Affects mainly your nose and throat
Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal Makes you feel unwell, but you're OK to carry on as normal (for example, go to work)

How to treat flu yourself

To help you get better more quickly:

  • rest and sleep
  • keep warm
  • take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower your temperature and treat aches and pains
  • drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration (your pee should be light yellow or clear)

A pharmacist can help with flu

A pharmacist can give treatment advice and recommend flu remedies.

Be careful not to use flu remedies if you're taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as it's easy to take more than the recommended dose.

Speak to a pharmacist before giving medicines to children.

Find a pharmacy

Call NHS 111 or see your GP if:

  • you're worried about your baby's or child's symptoms
  • you're 65 or over
  • you're pregnant
  • you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or HIV
  • your symptoms don't improve after 7 days

Antibiotics

GPs don't recommend antibiotics for flu because they won't relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Call 999 or go to A&E if you:

  • develop sudden chest pain
  • have difficulty breathing
  • start coughing up blood

How to avoid spreading the flu

Flu is very infectious and easily spread to other people. You're more likely to give it to others in the first 5 days.

Flu is spread by germs from coughs and sneezes, which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.

To reduce the risk of spreading flu:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible
See how to wash your hands correctly
Media last reviewed: 30/03/2017
Next review due: 30/03/2020

How to prevent flu

The flu vaccine reduces the risk of catching flu, as well as spreading it to others.

It's more effective to get the vaccine before the start of the flu season (December to March).

Find out if you're eligible for the free NHS flu vaccine

Flu vaccination and side effects for adults

Flu vaccination and side effects for children

Content supplied by NHS Choices