Also known as the common cold, a cold is an infection of the upper respiratory tract, not caused by cold weather at all, as the name suggests, but most commonly by the rhinovirus.

This is not the only virus that causes colds though: over 200 viruses can lead to the condition.

The cold causes a host of uncomfortable symptoms primarily affecting the nose, but is rarely serious and usually resolves in seven to 10 days. Colds are contagious and are caught when you come into contact with the droplets – from coughing, sneezing or talking – of an infected individual or share contaminated objects.

What are its symptoms?

Cold symptoms normally set in one to three days after the initial infection.

A cold is characterised by:

  • A runny nose and nasal congestion
  • A sore or itchy throat
  • Watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Cough.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether you have a cold or flu or a cold or allergies, as they have several shared symptoms. With a cold, you’re unlikely to experience a high fever, which sets it apart from the flu, and symptoms will usually take a few days to appear, unlike allergic symptoms, which typically occur immediately after exposure to the allergen.

How is it diagnosed?

It’s uncommon for a cold to require medical intervention, so in most cases self-diagnosis is the norm – often this can be verified with your pharmacist who will recommend an appropriate course of action. If you do see a doctor, he or she will perform a physical examination and ask a series of questions to rule out other causes.

Colds can sometimes lead to more serious secondary infections, such as bronchitis or ear infection, so always see a doctor if your fever spikes or won’t go away, for a cough that won’t get better, or if you experience severe pain when swallowing, or chest pain.

What are your treatment options?

There is no cure for the cold. Cold treatment is usually symptomatic with a range of over-the-counter cold remedies available for adults and children alike.

Some cold medication will contain a combination of active ingredients to target different symptoms, such as a painkiller to relieve a sore throat or any associated aches, and a decongestant for that stuffy nose. Be sure to read the patient information leaflet to avoid drug interactions, especially when using multiple medicines.

Studies suggest that taking a zinc supplement within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms can play a role in reducing the severity of the infection.

Can it be prevented?

There is no vaccine for the cold, so your best bet for preventing it is implementing healthy habits such as frequently washing your hands, not sharing eating utensils or similar implements, and avoiding those who are sick with it.

Leading a healthy lifestyle which includes following a balanced diet, exercising regularly, drinking enough water, not smoking and getting enough sleep will help to support your immune system, which will give you a better chance of fighting it off faster if you do become infected.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015