What is the common cold?

The common cold, also known as a head cold, is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract affecting the nose, throat and upper airways. There are more than 200 viruses that can cause a cold, with rhinoviruses the most common culprit.1

Cold viruses are very contagious, and easily spread from person to person. When someone with a cold sneezes, tiny droplets containing the virus are transmitted into the air. If a person touches a surface or breathes air that contains the virus, they can also catch it. A cold is contagious a few days before symptoms begin, until all ‘active’ symptoms are gone, which is usually around 10 days2.

You can catch a cold at any time of the year, but they’re most common during winter. It’s thought that the colder air decreases our immune activity3, making us more susceptible to a cold. Rhinoviruses also prefer colder temperatures.

Children under six, people with weak immune systems, and adults aged over 65 years are most at risk of contracting a cold.

Cold or Flu?

Influenza or Flu is also a contagious respiratory illness, but is caused by the influenza viruses. While common cold symptoms come on gradually, flu symptoms come on fairly suddenly, usually within 1-2 days, and are more severe than a cold. They may also include high fever, body aches and sweats, which are not characteristics of a cold.

What are the stages of a cold?

How to treat a cold

A healthy immune system should be able to fight a cold virus. While there is no treatment to ‘cure’ a cold, or help you get over your cold fast, there are a number of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that can help ease symptoms. For example:


simple painkillers (i.e. paracetamol or ibuprofen) may help relieve headaches, muscle aches and pains


cold and flu tablets may contain decongestants to relieve a blocked nose, antihistamines to relieve sneezing, cough suppressants to reduce coughing and pain relievers. Often there is a ‘day’ and ‘night’ tablet. The ‘day’ tablet is a non-drowsy formula, while the ‘night’ tablet contains ingredients that may make you sleepy, which can be useful when congestion and coughing make it difficult to sleep


lozenges and gargles may help soothe a sore throat


rest and stay hydrated while your body fights the cold virus


try to keep up fluid intake and eat – smoothies and soups may be a suitable option

OTC cold medications aren’t generally recommended for children. Instead, you can:

  • ensure they stay hydrated (warm liquids like soups and warm water can help loosen mucus)
  • use a humidifier to add moisture to the air to help reduce throat irritation
  • use an OTC nasal saline spray to help ease symptoms of congestion
  • offer cold or frozen foods to help soothe a sore throat
  • encourage children over six to gargle salt water to help ease a sore throat
  • ensure they get enough rest

Tips to help prevent a common cold

The best way to help prevent a cold is to practice good hygiene by washing your hands with soap and water, especially before eating or preparing food, after using the bathroom, wiping your nose, or coming into contact with someone who has a cold. You should also:

  • avoid touching your face, as cold viruses spread easily from hands to eyes, nose and mouth
  • clean common surfaces (e.g. doorknobs, etc.)
  • use hand sanitisers when soap and water is unavailable
  • strengthen your immune system by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep
  • take a vitamin C supplement, as there is some evidence it may help reduce the duration of a cold5
  • stay home if you’re sick to avoid passing it onto other

You may also consider getting a flu shot. While it won’t protect you from the viruses that cause the common cold, it will help better protect you from getting the seasonal flu, and potentially avoid doubling up on symptoms of cold and flu.

How TerryWhite Chemmart can help

Your local TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacist can help with expert advice on managing your cold symptoms, and recommend products that may be right for you.

Book your flu vaccination online or visit your local TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacy.

General advice only – this information should not replace the information provided to you by your health care professional. If symptoms are severe or persist, please speak to your health care professional. Information current as of date of publishing.


1 Mayo Clinic, Common cold, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605

2 Healthline, Life Cycle of the Common Cold, https://www.healthline.com/health/life-cycle-of-the-common-cold

3 Medical News Today, Why do colds and flu strike in winter?, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320099

4 Healthline, Life Cycle of the Common Cold, https://www.healthline.com/health/life-cycle-of-the-common-cold

5 Science Daily, Larger doses of vitamin C may lead to a greater reduction in common cold duration, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170330115246.htm