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The common cold: symptoms and treatment

Catching the common cold isn’t fun. That’s precisely why there’s so much information about how to avoid and treat the cold, from wearing wet socks to bed, to eating raw garlic cloves, and even “sweating it out”.


If you’re concerned you’ve come down with a cold, one of the best places to start is to figure out whether it is fact a cold, or something more serious — like the flu.


Here are a few cold symptoms to be on the lookout for, and how to effectively treat them:

A sore throat

This is often one of the first signs of a cold and can range from a mild scratchy feeling to a strong pain that interferes with eating. If you’re experiencing the latter, it’s a good idea to visit your GP.


There are a few ways that you can treat a sore throat:

Lozenges

A lozenge can help to soothe pain and provide relief from discomfort. Look for a lozenge that has anaesthetic properties, which will help to numb the throat and relieve pain. Some lozenges are also fortified with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial ingredients to kill bacteria and soothe swelling and pain.

Gargles

Gargles are used to a similar fashion to mouthwash. When swished around the mouth and gargled in the back of the throat for around 30 seconds (always follow the instructions on the packaging), these products can help to kill the bacteria that cause sore throats. Gargles are generally most effective when used at the first signs of infection or pain.

Sprays

Sore throat sprays provide targeted relief for painful, inflamed throats. They usually have a nozzle which helps to deliver the medication at the back of the throat, where it’s needed most. These sprays often have anti-inflammatory analgesic ingredients that help to relieve pain and swelling.

Paracetamol or Ibuprofen

These medicines work to relieve pain, and therefore can help ease a sore throat. Ibuprofen is anti-inflammatory and can help to soothe irritation and swelling. Remember that these ingredients are often used in cold and flu medications, so be sure to check with your pharmacist first.

A runny or blocked nose

Often a cold will start with sneezing and a runny nose, followed by nasal congestion. This can be particularly irritating and may interfere with breathing. Staying hydrated is an especially effective way to relieve congestion, as it helps to thin the mucus.


Here are a few other ways you can get relief:

Nasal sprays and drops

Nasal sprays are often used for allergies and are effective in helping to relieve the congestion associated with common colds. Similar to a throat spray, their method of delivery means that the medicine is delivered right where you need it and can act fast to relief stuffy noses.

Syrups and elixirs

These products are generally formulated for children and provide an easy way to take the medicine that will help to relieve congestion, as well as symptoms such as itchy eyes and coughs.

Rinses and irrigation

Irrigating the nasal passage helps to clear out excess mucus and relieve congestion. These usually take the form of a neti pot, syringe or squeeze bottle and use a saline solution to flush the nasal passages with water.

Capsules and tablets

There are a wide variety of capsules and tablets you can take to help with congestion. Speak to your pharmacist about which option is right for you and your symptoms.

Coughing and sneezing

Coughing and sneezing are uncomfortable symptoms associated with the common cold, but they’re also one of the main ways that it spreads. For this reason, it’s very important to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, using either a tissue or the inside of your elbow. This helps to stop infected droplets from spreading through the air and being inhaled by other people or landing on surfaces which are then spread through contact.


One of the best ways to keep your cough under control is to address your nasal congestion, as coughs are generally caused by mucus running down the back of the throat. For this reason, you may also find that elevating your chest and head with a few extra pillows can help to relieve nighttime coughing.


Here are a few other ways:

Cough liquids and syrups

These are formulated for either a dry cough or a chesty cough. Dry coughs don’t produce any mucus, and are usually a result of irritation. Dry cough syrups usually work to suppress the cough.


Chesty coughs, on the other hand, will often produce phlegm. Chesty cough syrups often contain ingredients that are ‘expectorants’, which help you to cough up the mucus that’s in your airways by breaking it down and thinning it out.


Combined medicines

Some cold and flu medicines are available as a combination of products which are designed to treat multiple symptoms at once — for example, fever, aches, pain, cough and/or a runny nose. When using these treatments, it’s important to check the ingredient list before taking them to avoid accidentally taking double doses. For example, some hot honey and lemon flavoured cold-relieving drinks often contain paracetamol and ibuprofen.


Remember that special care is needed when considering cough and cold medicines for children, and people with diabetes or blood pressure. Ask your pharmacist about the treatments that are right for you and your symptoms.


For more information, speak to your GP or pharmacist, or read our Colds and Flu Brochure.

You may also be interested in the following:

Common sense for the common cold. Tips to stay healthy during winter
6 tips to beat the winter blues
4 Reasons to get the flu vaccination this year

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