Ask the Chemist

How to deal with coughs and colds

Most of us will probably have a cold this winter. Find out how to look after yourself and when you should visit the doctor.

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Colds are caused by viruses and there are over 200 common cold viruses, so they can be hard to avoid. They are spread through droplets that are coughed and sneezed out by an infected person. They can also be transferred on a person's fingers, if you have a cold and you touch your nose or eyes and then touch someone else, you may pass the virus on to them.

The main symptoms are coughing, sneezing, blocked nose, sore throat, headache and a slight temperature. If these are the only symptoms you have, it’s unlikely that your GP will be able to do anything.

Get advice from your local pharmacy on how to manage the symptoms and buy over-the-counter medicine.

Don't pass it on
1. CATCH IT Germs spread easily. Always carry tissues and use them to catch your cough or sneeze.
2. BIN IT Germs can live for several hours on tissues. Dispose of your tissue as soon as possible.
3. KILL IT Hands can transfer germs to every surface you touch. Clean your hands as soon as you can. 

Get rest and eat well
Try to rest, eat well, avoid stress and keep well hydrated. If you have a fever, you may need extra fluids. You could also take paracetamol to treat fever and pain, or inhale steam with a decongestant in it to help clear a blocked nose.


Painkillers, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin, can really help if you have a cold, but aspirin shouldn't be given to children under 16 years of age. Decongestants help to reduce the swelling inside your nose so you can breathe more easily.

Children can also be treated using over-the-counter painkillers to ease discomfort and help to bring down a fever. Both paracetamol and ibuprofen are available as a liquid for children and can be given from the age of about three months. Always check with your doctor if you aren’t sure which treatments you can give your child.

In most cases, antibiotics (which are used to treat bacterial infections) aren’t necessary. Colds and flu, and most coughs, are caused by viruses so antibiotics can’t help.

Children and colds
Children get a lot of colds because the body takes time to build up immunity. Your body learns to fight off a particular kind of virus every time you get an infection, which is why you get fewer colds as you get older.

While most bugs will run their course without doing any real harm, there are certain cases when you or your child should see a GP. These include:

  • if you or your child has a chronic condition such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease
  • if you have a very high temperature and feel ill, for example if you also have an unusually severe headache or abdominal pain
  • if your child is vomiting but does not have diarrhoea, or has a rash in addition to the fever
  • if your child stops drinking and is unusually lethargic
  • if your child’s fever doesn’t respond to paracetamol or ibuprofen

Babies, and older and frailer people should get help if they're unwell. All babies under three months with a temperature of more than 38°C (100.4°F) should be urgently assessed by a doctor, as should babies aged three to six months with a temperature higher than 39°C (102.2°F).

Good Advice

  • Rest and drink plenty of fluids
  • Use a towel over a bowl of hot water to clear blocked nasal passages
  • Add honey and lemon to suitable drinks to soothe sore throats