Common cold



  • Colds are viral infections of the respiratory tract.
  • Symptoms can include sneezing, a blocked or runny nose, a sore throat and coughing.
  • Anyone can get a cold at any time and they are very common.
  • Colds rarely cause serious harm, but they can make you feel unwell.

Colds are caused by viruses. There are about 200 different viruses that can cause a cold and each one is slightly different. That is why you can get one cold after another. Once your immune system has fought off an infection with one particular cold virus, you will be immune to that virus.

How common are colds?

Colds are very common, in fact:

  • children can get about 5–10 colds per year
  • adults can get 2–4 colds per year
  • children get more colds than adults because they are not immune to as many cold viruses as adults are.

Symptoms of a common cold

Cold symptoms can include:

  • a sore throat
  • sneezing
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a cough.

The common cold is not the same as flu (influenza). Flu is caused by a completely different virus (influenza virus A or B), and has much more severe symptoms. However the cold virus can still make you feel unwell and is usually more than just a runny nose.

Colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics won't help. Antibiotics do not kill viruses.

Most people who have a cold will get better without antibiotics, because their immune system will take care of the infection on its own.

Find out about the medicines and treatments for relieving the symptoms of a cold.

Use common sense if you catch a cold

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Related information - common cold


For health professionals
13 Oct 2016 Find out which tests, treatments or procedures healthcare providers and consumers should question, as recommended by Australian medical colleges.
19 Jul 2016 How long does a cold take to get better? And when are you most infectious? Free poster.
19 Jul 2016 Green snot doesn't mean you need antibiotics. Download this free A4 poster to display in your premises.
(Media release)
18 Jul 2016 The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, as part of the Choosing Wisely Australia® initiative, is encouraging patients to engage in an active discussion with their GP around the appropriate prescribing of antibiotics for middle ear infections (otitis media). For the vast majority of children an antibiotic will not be required.
(Media release)
08 Jul 2016 With cold and flu season underway, NPS MedicineWise has released an interactive online case study tailored by audience to GPs, pharmacists and nurses on otitis media and antibiotic prescribing.
16 Jun 2016 Most colds will get better in 7 to 10 days. Find out more about how long symptoms last and when you are infectious so you can minimise the spread.
16 Jun 2016 Studies show that antibiotics do not improve the symptoms of a cold or the time it takes to get better. Find out why antibiotics won’t help a cold.
16 Jun 2016 Colds spread fast and easily. Find out some simple things you can do to avoid catching and spreading a cold.
16 Jun 2016 Colds can't be cured with medicines, and you will get better by yourself. Find out more about simple ways to relieve symptoms and feel better faster.
14 Mar 2016 Antibiotics aren’t likely to help coughs, colds or sore throats. Download a factsheet about treating respiratory infections here.