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Common cold

Refredat comú

The common cold is a mild upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. It spreads from person to person through the air, in droplets expelled from coughing and sneezing, and from close personal contact by hand.It usually starts through the nose and throat and may later descend to the bronchial tubes. It generally clears up without treatment after a few days. It is more frequent in the winter and spring. The infection spreads more easily with certain factors: contact with small children, regular smoking, malnutrition and/or stress.



Cold symptoms generally abate spontaneously within 7-10 day, may vary from one person to another and are as follows: 

  • Nasal congestion and post-nasal drip: nasal mucous is initially transparent and can become thicker and turn yellow or green as the cold takes its course.
  • Sore throat or pharyngeal itching.
  • Tickly cough which can last for more days in smokers. 
  • Watery eyes.
  • Mild headache.
  • Sneezing.
  • Fever usually below 38.5ºC accompanied by general malaise. High persistent fever is more typical of the flu.
  • Mild body ache.

The common cold may aggravate chronic illnesses such as asthma, pulmonary emphysema and bronchitis.

Its most common complications are sinusitis, otitis media, bronchitis and pneumonia.

It should be distinguished from the flu, which is also a disease caused by a virus. The flu occurs in winter epidemics, during the coldest months of the year. Its symptoms suddenly appear, with high fever (39ºC - 40ºC), muscular pain, headache and sore throat, general malaise, blocked nose and dry cough. It may cause diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, especially in young children.


Who is affected by colds? 

Colds are a highly prevalent infection that affects adults between two and six times a year, and children between six and ten times a year. School-age children are the main individuals affected and the virus’s main transmission reservoir and focus. Although it is a benign disease, the common cold may be a reason for sick leave.



It is diagnosed by a doctor based on the symptoms described by the patient and the signs detected during the physical examination.  No diagnostic tests are required.


Typical treatment

Antibiotics do not cure colds. In fact, there is no medication that cures them, though there are some medicines, such as paracetamol, which help to tackle the symptoms. There is also a series of useful recommendations for treating cold symptoms:

  • Rest and look after your health. 
  • Drink water, juice, broths or infusions. If you have no appetite, you should not eat solid food. 
  • Avoid smoking. 
  • Shower or take a bath to loosen up your mucous. 
  • Clear your nose with physiological serum or salt water. 
  • Avoid coughing and clearing your throat, except to expel mucous:  coughing scratches your throat, making it more irritable and worsening your cough. 

Colds can clear up without assistance from a professional health worker. A family-medicine professional may be consulted in the following cases:

  • Breathlessness.
  • High fever.
  • Where the patient is elderly or has a chronic illness. 

Otherwise you should avoid using emergency hospital services, unless instructed by your doctor. Rational use of the emergency services prevents its collapse and enables serious cases to be properly attended to.



There are no vaccines for colds. The flu vaccines protects against the flu but not colds. 

The disease spreads through direct contact with infected individuals:

  • Through hands and regions close to the respiratory tracts.
  • By inhaling particles emitted from speaking, coughing, sneezing and breathing.
  • From contact with surfaces containing remains of secretions from infected individuals.

The best way of protecting yourself and preventing the virus from spreading is by following good hygiene practices. This helps to reduce transmission of the virus and is the most effective action for protecting yourself and those around you:

  • When you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a single-use tissue and throw it away in a rubbish bin. If you don’t have a tissue, you should cough or sneeze on the upper part of one of your sleeves.
  • Wash your hands frequently with water and soap or with an alcohol-based preparation, and dry them thoroughly.
  • Frequently ventilate closed spaces by opening windows.