Colds and flu

Updated 05 October 2017

What are colds?

Colds are viral infections of the nose and throat. Colds can go on to involve the sinuses, ears, larynx, trachea and bronchi directly or through secondary effects



· Colds are short-lived viral infections of the upper airways.

· Cold viruses are most commonly spread via direct contact.

· Typical symptoms include running nose, sneezing, headache, sore throat, cough and tiredness.

· Children get colds more often than adults.

· Colds and influenza (flu) are different conditions.

· Colds cannot be treated with antibiotics because they are viral infections.

· Simple personal hygiene, such as hand washing, can help prevent colds.


Colds are viral infections of the nose and throat. Colds can go on to involve the sinuses, ears, larynx (vocal cords), trachea and bronchi directly or through secondary effects.

The presence of the virus causes inflammation of membrane linings, so that there is swelling with obstruction (stuffiness) and increased mucous secretions. Colds are the most common type of respiratory infection; they are usually mild illnesses that naturally come to an end, only occasionally leading to further problems.


Colds can occur during any season and can affect anyone. Children get colds far more often than adults do.

This may be due to the fact that they touch their faces and noses after touching other objects a great deal, and also because they haven't been exposed to as many viruses and have not had time to build up the kind of immunity that adults have.

Read more: 

Causes of a cold 

Symptoms of a cold  

Treating a cold 

Reviewed by Dr Marvin Hsiao MBBCH MMed MPH, Division of Medical Virology, Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, University of Cape Town. February 2015.

(Previously reviewed by Dr Eftyhia Vardas, University of the Witwatersrand 2011)


Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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