The cold is an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) and it affects most adults around two to four times a year.
Fortunately, the common cold is usually a mild illness that will resolve without intervention over several days.
Most people will be able to recover from a cold with self-care treatments, and you should generally be able to carry on with your normal activities.
Here you’ll find the symptoms of a cold, how long a cold lasts, how long a cold is contagious, when to see a doctor, and treatment and self-care measures, so you can decide whether or not to go to work with a cold.
Common symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection include:
- a blocked or runny nose
- a sore throat
- a cough
- a hoarse voice
- pressure in the face or ears
- a stinging sensation in the eyes
- generally feeling unwell (malaise)
You can sometimes develop a headache and fever as well.
How long does a cold last
In adults, a common cold will normally last around 7 to 14 days and it’s not unusual to have a mild cough for up to 3 weeks. You will usually feel at your worst two or three days into a cold. However, this can differ from person to person.
Lifestyle factors can influence how long a cold will last. For example, people who smoke are more likely to have a slower recovery; they are also more at risk of developing complications.
Pre-existing conditions can also affect how long a cold will last. You are more likely to develop complications if you suffer from certain pre-existing conditions, including but not limited to:
You should see a doctor if you think you're developing complications, or if your symptoms don’t improve within three weeks.
How long are colds contagious?
A cold is contagious from a few days before your symptoms start until all of your symptoms have gone. This is because it takes a few days to develop symptoms after you have been infected with a virus which causes the cold.
A cold is the most contagious when your symptoms are at their worst (usually day two or three).
It’s hard to avoid being infected with a cold because there are so many viruses which cause it, and a lot are in the air which everyone is exposed to.
However, there are some things you can do to try and prevent the cold from spreading, such as:
- washing your hands regularly with soap and water
- using separate towels and flannels
- avoiding close contact with others
Self-care treatment for a cold
Currently there is no medication that is known to relieve a cold, and your body can usually fight off a cold without medical intervention.
Since the cold is caused by a viral infection, taking antibiotics won’t have any impact and could cause side effects. Instead, try the following self-care measures:
- stay hydrated
- get enough rest
- eat a healthy and balanced diet
- steam inhalation (take care to avoid scalding)
- vapour rubs (don’t apply directly under the nose)
- gargling salt water
- sucking on a sweet or sore throat lozenges
- nasal drops
- decongestant nasal sprays
- cough and cold remedies
However, you should speak to a pharmacist or doctor before taking painkillers, nasal sprays or other medication for further guidance on whether to use these medications, and how to get and use them.
These other self-care methods may help relieve your cold symptoms, but sometimes self-care measures are not enough.
When to see a doctor
As mentioned above, a cold will not respond to antibiotics and it can usually be treated at home with self-care measures. However, see a doctor if:
- you have a weakened immune system
- it is hard to breathe or you experience chest pain
- you have a high temperature
- you feel hot and shivery
- your symptoms suddenly get worse
- your symptoms don’t improve after three weeks
- you have a pre-existing condition that puts you at risk for complications
Should I go to work with a cold?
If you feel able and you don’t have any complications, there is usually no reason to take time off work.
However, if you work with people who are at greater risk from a cold (for example, children and older people) then you may decide to stay home.
If you do go to work, take precautions to prevent the spread of the infection. Make sure you wash your hands regularly, try not to share towels and avoid direct personal contact.