A young Black woman sits curled up on a sofa with a blanket wrapped around her, possibly suffering from cold or flu symptoms.
A middle-aged woman in a knitted hat holds a tissue over her mouth and nose, possibly about to cough or sneeze from a cold.

A complete guide to the common cold

Most of us will catch a cold at least twice a year, and for young children, even more frequently than that1 – but did you ever wonder what a cold is, exactly? Simply put, a cold is a viral infection caused by a wide range of viruses, with the rhinovirus family being the most common culprit.1

While having a cold is certainly annoying, it typically doesn’t take too long to clear up: the symptoms usually start to go away after a few days, disappearing within about a week.1 If you’ve ever had a cold before, this probably isn’t news to you, but it may surprise you to learn how long a cold is potentially contagious. An infected person can be contagious from the day before the illness breaks out, and can remain infectious (shedding the virus) for several weeks.3

What is a cold?

A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Many different viruses can cause a cold, but they are most commonly caused by viruses from the rhinovirus family. There are over 100 subtypes of rhinovirus. About 50% of all colds are associated with rhinoviruses, and this proportion can increase to 80% in the fall.1

The cold-causing virus enters your body through your mouth, eyes or nose. The virus can spread through droplets in the air or through direct or indirect contact with an infected person or object. Once in the body, viruses use their own chemical and genetic strategies to escape your body’s natural defence systems.2

But in response to the virus, your body’s immune system will spring into action: white blood cells, antibodies, and other mechanisms work to rid your body of the invader. Indeed, many of the symptoms that make a person feel ill during a cold (fever, headache, tiredness) actually result from the activities of the immune system trying to eliminate the infection from the body.2

What are the symptoms of a cold?

You’ll know you’ve caught a cold if you begin to experience a sore throat, cough, tiredness, a sudden fit of sneezes or a blocked nose.5 Having a blocked nose can be one of the most annoying symptoms of a cold. It makes the simple act of breathing difficult, which can in turn result in a lack of sleep and disrupted sleep patterns.1

Learn more about cold and flu symptoms.

How can I recognize that I’ve got a cold?

Colds feel different for different people. But generally, you’ll start to notice symptoms between one and three days after infection, with a peak around day four. Symptoms will start to taper off after seven days. But do remember, you can be contagious before you start to feel ill and for some time afterwards, too.

· Days 1–3: You might feel more tired than usual and feel the first signs of a sore throat (perhaps just an itchy throat), and you’ll probably start sneezing.

· Days 3–5: Next, you’ll start to notice that your nose is blocked, which will be at its worst on days 3 and 4. Alternatively, you may have a runny nose, and/or a cough. The cough may linger for a few weeks after the blocked nose and other cold symptoms start to dissipate.

· Days 6–7: You should be starting to feel better and most of your symptoms will be clearing up.

· Longer term: Exactly how long a cold will last does depend on the individual, but if you still have symptoms after 7–10 days or your symptoms start to worsen, it might be worth visiting your doctor to rule out a sinus infection or allergies.

How does someone catch a cold?

An infected person can spread their virus widely, either through coughs and sneezes (as the virus can stay in the air for some time) or through directly touching other people or surfaces and leaving infected secretions, which are then transmitted to someone else when they touch their eyes, mouth or nose.4

What increases my risk of getting a cold?

The following factors can increase the chances of catching a cold:1,4

1. Age – younger children are at greatest risk of colds

2. The time of year

3. Smoking

4. Exposure to other people

5. Stress

What’s the best remedy for a cold?

Getting plenty of rest is one of the best (and simplest) ways of treating a cold.1 Otherwise, cold treatments mainly focus on relieving certain symptoms. For example, treatments that can help ease nasal congestion include nasal irrigation, steam treatments and decongestant nasal sprays.

If you’re wondering how to cure a cold outright, you might be disappointed to learn that no cure exists for the common cold. This includes antibiotics, which you should never take in an attempt to treat a cold. Antibiotics work specifically against bacteria, not viruses – which means they won't have any effect in relieving your cold. Using them unnecessarily can also lead to the development of resistant strains of bacteria, which means antibiotics may not work when you do need them to treat a bacterial infection.10

What natural treatments are there to support my recovery?

As well as the Otrivin Medicated range of decongestant nasal sprays, Otrivin also offers effective non-medicated products that can help you breathe more easily. Try using one of the Otrivin Naturals products for daily nasal irrigation – the gentle saline formula can be used every day to help clear your nose, reduce swelling, and wash away any trapped bacteria and viruses from the nose.11

Healthy habits while you have a cold1

1. Do make sure to get enough rest, but there’s no need to stop normal everyday activities such as working or school – they won’t make a cold worse.

2. Eat healthy foods.

3. Drink plenty of fluids.

4. Wash your hands frequently.

5. Don’t share towels or other communal objects.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

· Another thing you could do is look at your diet and see whether you could introduce more vitamin C. Studies have shown that vitamin C may reduce the duration of your cold.13

· You can also speak to your doctor about taking zinc supplements at the first sign of a cold. In 2017, an analysis of seven studies showed that zinc supplementation could help to reduce the duration of a cold by 33%.14 Make sure you speak to your doctor or a healthcare professional about zinc supplements, and any potential side effects, before adding them to your recovery plan.

How do I avoid catching a cold?

You catch a cold after inhaling the virus or touching infected objects – such as surfaces and door handles – and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Breaking the chain begins with washing your hands regularly. That’s a good habit to have regardless of whether you have a cold, as is keeping fit, eating well and getting adequate rest.1


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