Open a PDF version to print this topic

HealthInfo Canterbury

Colds in adults

This page has links to information in other languages.

Colds are annoying. On average, adults suffer from two to four colds a year. Symptoms tend to peak after two to three days but the cough that comes with a cold can last for three to four weeks.

FDP MalaiseColds 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.

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

Avoiding getting colds

Unlike influenza (flu), there is no vaccination for colds because they are caused by many different viruses.

You can avoid colds by washing your hands before eating or preparing food, and not sharing cups, drink bottles, knives and forks, or anything you eat or drink with. Also wash your hands after you have touched your face.

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

Treating colds

Most people get over a cold within one to two weeks, but the cough that goes with a cold can last up to four weeks. The image below shows how long cold symptoms can last – a cough and runny nose can continue past two weeks without being a serious problem.

cold-symptomsWhile 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 don't have any other chest symptoms, you don't need antibiotics.

There are no treatments that will make a cold go away more quickly. But your immune system should fight it off within one or two weeks.

Antibiotics will not treat a cold, and may cause side effects such as diarrhoea (the runs), thrush, and tummy aches. Taking antibiotics when you don't need them makes it more likely you will later develop a bacterial infection that doesn't respond to antibiotics. It could then be very hard to find an antibiotic that works for you.

Self-care with colds

There are lots of cold and flu medications available over the counter. Read the labels carefully, because they are often expensive versions of simple painkillers 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 don't take these medications.

Next steps

Most colds get better within one to two weeks. However you should see a doctor if you:


Seek medical help immediately if you have any symptoms of meningitis.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed February 2019.


See also:

Acute bronchitis

Colds in children

Influenza (flu)

Image of man blowing nose courtesy of graur razvan ionut at

Page reference: 150985

Review key: HICLD-59367