Wharowharo ki ngā pakeke Colds in adults

Colds are caused by viruses infecting your upper airways (nose, sinuses, mouth, throat and voice box). They are not caused by bacteria so antibiotics will not treat a cold. On average, adults suffer from 2 to 4 colds a year.

Symptoms of a cold

If you have a cold, you will have some or all of these symptoms:

  • runny or blocked nose
  • watery eyes
  • sneezing
  • itchy or sore throat
  • cough, often producing mucus (sputum or phlegm) and more annoying during the night and when you wake
  • hoarse voice.

Symptoms tend to peak after 2 to 3 days but the cough that comes with a cold can last for 3 to 4 weeks.

Shows how long cold symptoms can last — a cough and runny nose can continue past 2 weeks without being a serious problem.

While your immune system is fighting the cold, any mucus you are coughing up may go from white or clear to yellow or pale green. This is normal. As long as it is just a small amount and you do not have any other chest symptoms, you do not need antibiotics.

You should see your healthcare provider if you:

  • have a rash (spots on your skin)
  • are short of breath (feel puffed), are breathing noisily or are coughing up a lot of green or blood-stained mucus
  • have dry coughing fits that make it hard to breathe
  • cannot keep food or drink down and do not pass much wee (urine)
  • have pain anywhere that is getting worse, despite taking paracetamol
  • have had a wet-sounding cough for 4 weeks or have had the cold for 4 weeks and you are not getting better.
  • You may feel pressure to be at work, but you will generally feel worse if you go in. You are also most likely to pass your cold to others during the first 2 to 3 days, so colleagues may thank you for staying away.

  • Your body may need more water if you have a fever. Being dehydrated will make you feel much worse so drinking plenty of water can help.

  • This can help to relieve fever, aches, sore throats, earache and headaches. Carefully follow the instructions on the label about how much medicine you should take and how often you should take it. It is important not to take more than the maximum dose.

  • These come as tablets or nasal sprays and can help with headaches and a blocked nose. But you should not use them for more than 3 to 4 days. Decongestants can cause side effects, such an irritated nose, a dry mouth and headaches. Speak to a pharmacist before using a decongestant, especially if you are taking any other medicine.

  • This may make congestion better for a while and does not have the same side effects as decongestants. Having a warm shower or bath before bed may also help, as can using a humidifier in your bedroom.

  • These can help make a sore throat feel better, but they may not be any more effective than simple pain relief medicine like paracetamol.

  • There are lots of cold and flu medications available over the counter. Read the labels carefully because they are often expensive versions of simple pain relievers or decongestants. Speak to a pharmacist if you are not sure what to take or if you are taking other medication, especially if you have any other health condition or are pregnant, as it may be best that you do not take these medications.

Medicines with pseudoephedrine

Avoid getting colds

Unlike flu, there is no vaccine for colds because they are caused by many different viruses.

You can avoid colds by:

  • washing your hands before eating or preparing food
  • not sharing cups, drink bottles, knives and forks, or anything you eat or drink with
  • washing your hands after you have touched your face.

How to clean your hands [PDF, 404 KB]internal link

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your arm (but not your hand) when you sneeze or cough, then wash your hands afterwards.

Keeping your home warm and dry and being smokefree also help to stop you and your family from getting colds.

Getting enough sleep and eating well can also reduce the number of colds you get and how bad they are.

Clinical review

This content was written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. It has been adapted for Health Information and Services.

Clinical advisers — HealthInfo (external link)

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