Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content


7-minute read

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What are colds?

A cold is a viral infection that affects the nose, the throat and upper airways.

Colds are very common. Children may get between 5 and 10 colds a year, while adults may get 2 to 4 colds each year.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

The symptoms of a cold can be mild or they can be moderately severe.

Symptoms of a cold may include:

Cold and Flu Symptoms
This infographic helps you compare cold and flu symptoms.

Should I keep my child home from school?

Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including colds and flu, and their recommended exclusion periods.

When should I see my doctor?

Colds and flu can make other conditions worse, including conditions such as asthma or diabetes. See your doctor if you have cold or flu-like symptoms and one or more of the following apply:

  • you can’t or won’t drink fluids
  • you vomit frequently and/or are unable to drink fluids
  • you have an intense headache
  • you are pale and feel sleepy
  • you have chest pain
  • your symptoms have lasted longer than 10 days
  • you have breathing difficulties
  • you have a rash with fever
  • you are worried

See your doctor if your child has cold and flu symptoms and:

  • they have a chronic medical condition
  • they show warning signs of severe illness, including poor feeding, dehydration and difficulty breathing

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What causes colds?

More than 200 types of viruses can cause a cold. Those most responsible belong to 1 of 2 groups:

Because several viruses can cause a cold, it's possible to have several colds, one after the other, because a different virus causes each one.

The viruses that cause a cold affect the lining of the nose and throat causing symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose and sneezing.

How is a cold diagnosed?

If you are generally healthy, you probably won't need to see a doctor to have a cold diagnosed. A healthy immune system will fight the infection and symptoms will usually clear up in 7-10 days without any treatment.

See your doctor if you, or your child, has cold or flu-like symptoms and one or more of the following apply:

  • you have asthma, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, heart disease or another long-term medical condition
  • you have a fever (a temperature of 38°C or higher) and are feeling unwell (e.g. a you have a painful headache or stomach pain)
  • you are vomiting
  • you are experiencing shortness of breath, noisy or fast breathing
  • you have neck stiffness
  • you are sensitive to light
  • you have chest pain
  • you have a persistent cough
  • your muscles ache
  • you are experiencing marked tiredness and a lack of energy, or you are not drinking fluids

See Fever in children and Symptoms of serious illness in babies and children for more information.

How are colds treated?

Colds and flu are treated the same way. In most cases you can treat the symptoms of a mild cold or flu yourself. Most people will get better by themselves within 7-10 days without any treatment.

Some things you can do to relieve cold or flu symptoms include:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of water and other non-alcoholic fluids to prevent dehydration
  • keeping warm
  • eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke if possible
  • inhaling steam from a hot bath or shower in a closed room to help relieve a blocked nose - remember to always directly supervise children near hot water

If you have a sore throat, try:

  • gargling with warm salty water
  • sucking on an ice cube, ice block or a throat lozenge
  • drinking hot water with honey and freshly squeezed lemon juice

There are also several medicines available to ease cold and flu symptoms.

Antibiotics do not treat a cold. This is because they only treat illnesses caused by bacteria, while colds and flu are caused by viruses. However, you can buy medicines from the pharmacy that help with pain and fever.

Can colds be prevented?

Good hygiene is one of the most important ways to help prevent colds and flu. You can ensure good hygiene by:

  • washing your hands regularly with soap and water, particularly after touching your nose or mouth, after using the toilet, and before handling food
  • sneezing and coughing into your elbow or a tissue (then throwing the tissue away immediately and washing your hands)
  • cleaning surfaces such as your computer keyboard, telephone and door handles regularly to get rid of germs
  • not sharing cups, plates and cutlery
  • not sharing bath towels with other people
  • throwing tissues and paper towels in the bin immediately after using them

Resources and support

Learn more about colds and flu here.

If you are feeling concerned about any symptoms of a cold or flu then see your doctor. If you would like to speak to a registered nurse, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Visit the Department of Health website for more information on the flu vaccine or or call the National Immunisation Hotline on 1800 671 811.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Common cold

A cold is a viral infection which affects the nose, ears and throat. There are more than 200 different types of viruses that can cause the common cold.

Read more on WA Health website

Common cold | SA Health

Common cold - over 100 known cold viruses - spread by contact with droplets from the nose of infected people in air or on surfaces and objects.

Read more on SA Health website

Common cold treatments -

Nothing will cure a cold, but there are treatments that can help. Rest, fluids, home remedies and medicines can relieve common cold symptoms and should have you feeling better within a few days.

Read more on myDr website

The common cold - Lung Foundation Australia

COPD Action Plan When completed with a health professional, a COPD Action plan helps you to recognise early signs of a flare up or worsening of symptoms so they can follow an agreed treatment plan

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Overview - Respiratory infections- Lung Foundation Australia

Learn about respiratory infectious diseases such as Pneumonia, Influenza and the common cold and learn how to stay well in winter.

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

What causes bronchitis - Choosing wisely

Bronchitis is usually caused by viruses, including the common cold and flu, but bacteria can sometimes cause it.

Read more on Choosing Wisely Australia website

Sore throat: self-care -

A sore throat makes swallowing difficult and painful. Sore throat is common because it is associated with the common cold. Find out what products are available for sore throat.

Read more on myDr website

Colds: commonsense not antibiotics -

If you have a cold, commonsense self-care measures and over-the-counter medicines can help to relieve symptoms. Antibiotics are not helpful in treating the common cold, which is caused by a virus.

Read more on myDr website

Asthma winter checklist - National Asthma Council Australia

Colds and flu can hit hard if you have asthma. In fact, the common cold is behind around 4 out of 5 bad asthma attacks. Make sure your lungs are in the best pos

Read more on National Asthma Council Australia website

Baby Sniffles | Tresillian

Your baby can have 6 – 12 colds every year, and experiences the common cold just like you, including blocked noses. Find out how you can help your baby.

Read more on Tresillian website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.