Get immediate help with minor illnesses and injuries:
A cough will usually go away within 3 weeks on its own.
How you can treat a cough yourself
Most coughs go away on their own within 3 weeks. There’s usually no need to see a GP.
- drink plenty of fluids
- drink hot lemon with honey (not suitable for babies)
Hot lemon with honey has a similar effect as cough medicines.
How to make hot lemon with honey at home
- Squeeze half a lemon into a mug of boiled water.
- Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey.
- Drink while still warm (don’t give hot drinks to small children).
A pharmacist can help with a cough
Speak to your pharmacist if you have a cough. They can give you advice or suggest treatments to help you cough less, like cough syrups and lozenges. These won’t get rid of the cough.
Some cough medicines shouldn’t be given to children under 12.
See a GP if:
- you’ve had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)
- your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse, for example – you have a hacking cough or can’t stop coughing
- you have chest pain
- you’re losing weight for no reason
- the side of your neck feels swollen and painful (swollen glands)
- you find it hard to breathe
- you have a weakened immune system, for example because of chemotherapy or diabetes
See a GP urgently if you’re coughing up blood.
What happens at your appointment
To find out what’s causing your cough your GP might:
take a sample of any mucus you might be coughing up
order an X-ray, allergy test, or test to see how well your lungs work
refer you to hospital to see a specialist, but this is very rare
What causes coughs
Most coughs are caused by cold or flu.
Other causes include:
- heartburn (acid reflux)
- allergies – for example, hay fever
- infections like bronchitis
- mucus dripping down the throat from the back of the nose
A cough is very rarely a sign of something serious like lung cancer.
[Last reviewed 2017-12-18]
You can often treat a cold without seeing your GP. You should begin to feel better in about a week or two.
Check if you have a cold
Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include:
- blocked or runny nose
- sore throat
- muscle aches
- a raised temperature
- pressure in your ears and face
- loss of taste and smell
The symptoms are the same in adults and children. Sometimes, symptoms last longer in children.
Telling the difference between cold and flu
Cold and flu symptoms are similar but flu tends to be more severe.
|Appears gradually||Appears quickly within a few hours|
|Affects mainly your nose and throat||Affects more than just your nose and throat|
|Makes you feel unwell but you’re okay to carry on as normal – for example, go to work||Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal|
How you can treat a cold yourself
To help you get better more quickly:
- rest and sleep
- keep warm
- drink plenty of water (fruit juice or squash mixed with water is ok) to avoid dehydration
- gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat
A pharmacist can help with cold medicines
You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets. A pharmacist can advise you on the best medicine.
- relieve a blocked nose with decongestant sprays or tablets
- ease aches or lower a temperature with painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
Be careful not to use cough and cold medicines if you’re taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as it’s easy to take more than the recommended dose.
Some are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women.
There’s little evidence that supplements (such as vitamin c, zinc, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery.
See a GP if:
- your symptoms don’t improve after three weeks
- your symptoms get suddenly worse
- your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
- you’re concerned about your child’s symptoms
- you’re finding it hard to breathe or develop chest pain
- you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
- you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you’re having chemotherapy
GPs don’t recommend antibiotics for colds because they won’t relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.
Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections and colds are caused by viruses.
How to avoid spreading a cold
Colds are caused by viruses and easily spread to other people. You’re infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes a week or two.
Colds are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.
To reduce the risk of spreading a cold:
- wash your hands often with warm water and soap
- use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
- bin used tissues as quickly as possible
How to prevent catching a cold
A person with a cold can start spreading it from a few days before their symptoms begin until the symptoms have finished. The best ways to avoid catching a cold are:
- washing your hands with warm water and soap
- not sharing towels or household items (like cups) with someone who has a cold
- not touching your eyes or nose in case you’ve come into contact with the virus – it can infect the body this way
- staying fit and healthy
The flu vaccine helps prevent the flu but not colds.
See how to wash your hands correctly
[Last reviewed 2017-12-19]
Most headaches will go away on their own and aren’t a sign of something more serious.
How you can ease headaches yourself
Headaches can last between 30 minutes and several hours.
|drink plenty of water||drink alcohol|
|get plenty of rest if you have a cold or the flu||skip meals (even if you might not feel like eating anything)|
|try to relax – stress can make headaches worse|
sleep more than you usually would – it can make the headache worse
|exercise when you can|
strain your eyes for a long time – for example, by looking at a screen
|take paracetamol or ibuprofen|
See a GP if:
- your headache keeps coming back
- painkillers don’t help and your headache gets worse
- you have a bad throbbing pain at the front or side of your head – this could be a migraine or, more rarely, a cluster headache
- you feel sick, vomit and find light or noise painful
- you get other symptoms – for example, your arms or legs feel numb or weak
See a GP urgently if you have a severe headache and:
- your jaw hurts when eating
- blurred or double vision
- your scalp feels sore
These could be signs that the arteries in your head and neck are inflamed. This needs urgent treatment.
Call 999 or go to A&E if:
- you injured your head badly – for example, from a fall or accident
- a headache came on suddenly and is extremely painful
You have an extremely painful headache and:
- sudden problems speaking or remembering things
- loss of vision
- you’re feeling drowsy or confused
- you have a very high temperature, feel hot and shivery, and have a stiff neck or a rash
- the white part of your eye is red
What can cause headaches
The most common reasons are:
- having a cold or the flu
- drinking too much alcohol
- bad posture
- eyesight problems
- not eating regular meals
- not drinking enough fluids (dehydration)
- taking too many painkillers
- women having their period or menopause
[Last reviewed 2017-12-21]
If you have a recent problem with your eyes, such as sore eyes, red eyes or visual disturbance, you can be assessed and treated by our local Minor Eye Conditions Service. This is a free service for patients registered with a Bedfordshire GP, which is available from a number of local opticians.
What is a Minor Eye Conditions Service (MECS)?
- Red eye or eyelids
- Dry eyes or gritty and uncomfortable eyes
- Irritation and inflammation of the eye
- Significant recent sticky discharge from the eye, or watery eyes
- Recently occurring flashes or floaters
- Ingrowing eyelashes
- Recent and sudden loss of vision
- Foreign body in the eye
Also, if you have a major eye condition that is being regularly monitored by your optometrist or hospital eye service, this will not be covered by this service, for example cataracts, diabetic retinopathy or glaucoma.
Where should I go?
An appointment will normally be required at authorised opticians, so please telephone first. Appointments are available during normal working hours and some practices offer weekend appointments. Not all practices have an optometrist available every day, but if they don’t, they will be able to find you an alternative appointment nearby.
Who is this service for?
If you are registered with a local GP, you can use this free service. It is for people of all ages – adults and children. Children under 16 years must be accompanied at their appointment by an adult.
How do I book an appointment with the service?
To make an appointment, call one of the opticians that are listed above. You will be asked some questions about your symptoms in order to assess how quickly you need to be seen by the service, which will be withing 24 hours in urgent cases and withing a few days for routine appointments.
Please take your glasses and a list of your current medication with you to the appointment. The optometrist may put drops in your eyes to enlarge your pupils in order to get a better view inside your eyes. You should not drive until the effect of these drops have worn off, which may take a few hours.
If your condition is more serious, the optometrist will book you an urgent appointment at a hospital eye clinic. If you need a routine appointment with a hospital, the optometrist will organise this for you. You may also be advised to make an appointment with your GP if your eye condition is related to your general health.
Back pain is very common and normally improves within a few weeks or months.
Pain in the lower back (lumbago) is particularly common, although it can be felt anywhere along the spine – from the neck down to the hips.
In most cases the pain isn’t caused by anything serious and will usually get better over time.
There are things you can do to help relieve it. But sometimes the pain can last a long time or keep coming back.
How to relieve back pain
The following tips may help reduce your backache and speed up your recovery:
- stay as active as possible and try to continue your daily activities – this is one of the most important things you can do, as resting for long periods is likely to make the pain worse
- try exercises and stretches for back pain; other activities such as walking, swimming, yoga and pilates may also be helpful
- take anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen – remember to check the medicine is safe for you to take first and ask a pharmacist if you’re not sure
- use hot or cold compression packs for short-term relief – you can buy these from your local pharmacy, or a hot water bottle and a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth will work just as well
Although it can be difficult, it helps if you stay optimistic and recognise that your pain should get better, as people who manage to stay positive despite their pain tend to recover quicker.
Getting help and advice
Back pain usually gets better on its own within a few weeks or months and you may not need to see a doctor or other healthcare professional.
But it’s a good idea to get help if:
- the pain doesn’t start to improve within a few weeks
- the pain stops you doing your day-to-day activities
- the pain is very severe or gets worse over time
- you’re worried about the pain or are struggling to cope
You can see your GP, who will ask about your symptoms, examine your back, and discuss possible treatments. They may refer you to a specialist doctor or a physiotherapist for further help.
Alternatively, you may want to consider approaching a physiotherapist directly. Some NHS physiotherapists accept appointments without a doctor’s referral, or you could choose to pay for private treatment.
Read more about how to find a physiotherapist.
Treatments from a specialist
Your GP, specialist or physiotherapist may recommend extra treatments if they don’t think your pain will improve with self-help measures alone.
These may include:
- group exercise classes – where you’re taught exercises to strengthen your muscles and improve your posture
- manual therapy – treatments such as manipulating the spine and massage, usually carried out by physiotherapists, chiropractors or osteopaths
- psychological support, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – this can be a useful part of treatment if you’re struggling to cope with the pain
Some people choose to see a therapist for manual therapy without seeing their GP first. If you want to do this, you’ll usually need to pay for private treatment.
Surgery is generally only considered in the small number of cases where back pain is caused by a specific medical condition.
Causes of back pain
Often it’s not possible to identify the cause of back pain. Doctors call this “non-specific” back pain.
Sometimes the pain may be a result of an injury such as a sprain or strain, but often it occurs for no apparent reason. It’s very rarely caused by anything serious.
Occasionally back pain can be due to a medical condition such as:
- a slipped (prolapsed) disc – where a disc of cartilage in the spine presses on a nearby nerve
- sciatica – irritation of the nerve that runs from the pelvis to the feet
These conditions tend to cause additional symptoms – such as numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation – and they’re treated differently to non-specific back pain.
Preventing back pain
It’s difficult to prevent back pain, but the following tips may help reduce your risk:
- do regular back exercises and stretches – your GP or a physiotherapist may be able to advise you about exercises to try
- stay active – doing regular exercise can help keep your back strong; adults are advised to do 150 minutes of exercise a week
- avoid sitting for too long when driving or at work
- take care when lifting – read some safe lifting tips
- check your posture when sitting, using computers and watching television – find out how to sit correctly and tips for laptop users
- ensure the mattress on your bed supports you properly
- lose weight through a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise if you’re overweight – being overweight can increase your risk of developing back pain
When to get immediate medical advice
You should contact your GP or NHS 111 immediately if you have back pain and:
- numbness or tingling around your genitals or buttocks
- difficulty peeing
- loss of bladder or bowel control
- chest pain
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- unexplained weight loss
- a swelling or a deformity in your back
- it doesn’t improve after resting or is worse at night
- it started after a serious accident, such as after a car accident
These problems could be a sign of something more serious and need to be checked urgently.
[Last reviewed 2017-01-23]
Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. Most can be treated at home without seeing a GP.
Check if you have a sprain or strain
It’s likely to be a sprain or strain if:
- you have pain, tenderness or weakness – often around your ankle, foot, wrist, thumb, knee, leg or back
- the injured area is swollen or bruised
- you can’t put weight on the injury or use it normally
- you have muscle spasms or cramping – where your muscles painfully tighten on their own
Is it a sprain or a strain?
|Torn or twisted ligament (tissue that connects the joints)||Overstretched or torn muscle (also known as a pulled muscle)|
|Most common in: wrists, ankles, thumbs, knees||Most common in: knees, feet, legs, back|
How to treat sprains and strains yourself
For the first couple of days, follow the 4 steps known as RICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:
- Rest – stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.
- Ice – apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
- Compression – wrap a bandage around the injury to support it.
- Elevate – keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible.
To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat – such as hot baths and heat packs – alcohol and massages for the first couple of days.
When you can move the injured area without pain stopping you, try to keep moving it so the joint or muscle doesn’t become stiff.
[Last reviewed 2018-01-12]
Burns and scalds are damage to the skin caused by heat. Both are treated in the same way.
A burn is caused by dry heat – by an iron or fire, for example. A scald is caused by something wet, such as hot water or steam.
Burns can be very painful and may cause:
- red or peeling skin
- white or charred skin
The amount of pain you feel isn’t always related to how serious the burn is. Even a very serious burn may be relatively painless.
Treating burns and scalds
To treat a burn, follow the first aid advice below:
- immediately get the person away from the heat source to stop the burning
- cool the burn with cool or lukewarm running water for 20 minutes – don’t use ice, iced water, or any creams or greasy substances such as butter
- remove any clothing or jewellery that’s near the burnt area of skin, including babies’ nappies – but don’t move anything that’s stuck to the skin
- make sure the person keeps warm – by using a blanket, for example, but take care not to rub it against the burnt area
- cover the burn by placing a layer of cling film over it – a clean plastic bag could also be used for burns on your hand
- use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat any pain
- if the face or eyes are burnt, sit up as much as possible, rather than lying down – this helps to reduce swelling
Read more about treating burns and scalds.
When to get medical attention
Depending on how serious a burn is, it may be possible to treat it at home. For minor burns, keep the burn clean and don’t burst any blisters that form.
More serious burns require professional medical attention. You should go to a hospital A&E department for:
- all chemical and electrical burns
- large or deep burns – any burn bigger than your hand
- burns that cause white or charred skin – any size
- burns on the face, hands, arms, feet, legs or genitals that cause blisters
If someone has breathed in smoke or fumes, they should also seek medical attention. Some symptoms may be delayed and can include:
- a sore throat
- difficulty breathing
- facial burns
People at greater risk from the effects of burns, such as children under five years old and pregnant women, should also get medical attention after a burn or scald.
The size and depth of the burn will be assessed and the affected area cleaned before a dressing is applied. In severe cases, skin graft surgery may be recommended.
Read more about:
Types of burn
Burns are assessed by how seriously your skin is damaged and which layers of skin are affected. Your skin has three layers:
- the epidermis – the outer layer of skin
- the dermis – the layer of tissue just beneath, which contains blood capillaries, nerve endings, sweat glands and hair follicles
- the subcutaneous fat, or subcutis – the deeper layer of fat and tissue
There are four main types of burn, which tend to have a different appearance and different symptoms:
- superficial epidermal burn – where the epidermis is damaged; your skin will be red, slightly swollen and painful, but not blistered
- superficial dermal burn – where the epidermis and part of the dermis are damaged; your skin will be pale pink and painful, and there may be small blisters
- deep dermal or partial thickness burn – where the epidermis and the dermis are damaged: this type of burn makes your skin turn red and blotchy; your skin may be dry or moist, and become swollen and blistered, and it may be very painful or painless
- full thickness burn – where all three layers of skin (the epidermis, dermis and subcutis) are damaged; the skin is often burnt away and the tissue underneath may appear pale or blackened, while the remaining skin will be dry and white, brown or black with no blisters, and the texture of the skin may also be leathery or waxy
Preventing burns and scalds
Many severe burns and scalds affect babies and young children. Examples of things you can do to help reduce the likelihood of your child having a serious accident at home include:
- keeping your child out of the kitchen whenever possible
- testing the temperature of bath water using your elbow before you put your baby or toddler in the bath
- keeping matches, lighters and lit candles out of young children’s sight and reach
- keeping hot drinks well away from young children
Read more about preventing burns and scalds.
If you need advice about a burn or scald, you can:
Use the services directory to find minor injury units and walk-in centres near you.
[Last reviewed 2017-09-24]
Shingles is an infection that causes a painful rash. See a GP as soon as possible if you think you have it.
Check if you have shingles
The first signs of shingles can be:
- a tingling or painful feeling in an area of skin
- a headache or feeling generally unwell
A rash will appear a few days later.
Usually, you get shingles on your chest and tummy, but it can appear on your face, eyes and genitals.
See a GP as soon as you suspect shingles
They can prescribe medicine to help speed up your recovery and avoid longer-lasting problems.
These work best if taken within 3 days of your symptoms starting.
If you can’t see a GP, call 111 for advice about what to do.
How to treat shingles symptoms yourself
take paracetamol to ease pain
let dressings or plasters stick to the rash
keep the rash clean and dry to reduce the risk of infection
use antibiotic cream – this slows healing
wear loose-fitting clothing
use a cool compress (a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel or a wet cloth) a few times a day
How long shingles lasts
It can take up to 4 weeks for the rash to heal.
Your skin can be painful for weeks after the rash has gone, but it usually settles over time.
Stay away from certain groups of people if you have shingles
You can’t spread shingles to others. But people who haven’t had chickenpox before could catch chickenpox from you.
This is because shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus.
Try to avoid:
- pregnant women who have not had chickenpox before
- people with a weakened immune system – like someone having chemotherapy
- babies less than 1 month old – unless it’s your own baby, as they should be protected from the virus by your immune system
Stay off work or school until the rash scabs.
You’re only infectious to others while the rash oozes fluid.
Shingles and pregnancy
If you’re pregnant and get shingles, there’s no danger to your pregnancy or baby.
But your GP should refer you to a specialist, as you may need antiviral treatment.
You can’t get shingles from someone with chickenpox
You can’t get shingles from someone with shingles or chickenpox.
But you can get chickenpox from someone with shingles if you haven’t had chickenpox before.
When people get chickenpox, the virus remains in the body. It can be reactivated later and cause shingles if someone’s immune system is lowered.
This can be because of stress, certain conditions, or treatments like chemotherapy.
A shingles vaccine is available on the NHS for people in their 70s. It helps reduce your risk of getting shingles.
If you get shingles after being vaccinated, the symptoms can be much milder.
Ask your GP surgery if you can get the vaccine on the NHS.
Find out more about who can have the shingles vaccine.
[Last reviewed 2018-02-27]
Most cuts and grazes are minor and can be easily treated at home.
Stopping the bleeding, cleaning the wound thoroughly and covering it with a plaster or dressing is usually all that’s needed.
Minor wounds should start to heal within a few days.
How to treat cuts and grazes
Stop the bleeding
Stop any bleeding before applying a dressing to the wound. Apply pressure to the area using a clean and dry absorbent material – such as a bandage, towel or handkerchief – for several minutes.
If the cut is to your hand or arm, raise it above your head to help reduce the flow of blood.
If the injury is to a lower limb, lie down and raise the affected area above the level of your heart.
Clean the wound and apply a dressing
When the wound has stopped bleeding, clean it and cover it with a dressing to help stop it becoming infected.
To do this:
- wash and dry your hands thoroughly
- clean the wound under drinking-quality running tap water – avoid using antiseptic as it may damage the skin and slow healing
- pat the area dry with a clean towel
- apply a sterile adhesive dressing, such as a plaster – read more about how to apply plasters and other dressings
Keep the dressing clean by changing it as often as necessary. Keep the wound dry by using waterproof dressings, which will allow you to take showers.
You can remove the dressing after a few days, once the wound has closed itself.
Take painkillers if needed
A wound is at risk of infection if:
- it has been contaminated with dirt, pus or other bodily fluids
- there was something in the wound before it was cleaned, such as gravel or a shard of glass
- it has a jagged edge
- it’s longer than 5cm (2 inches)
- it was caused by an animal or human bite
Signs a wound has become infected include:
- swelling, redness and increasing pain in the affected area
- pus forming in or around the wound
- feeling generally unwell
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- swollen glands under the chin or in the neck, armpits or groin
An infected wound can usually be successfully treated with a short course of antibiotics.
When to go to A&E
Go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department as soon as possible if:
- you cannot stop the bleeding
- you’re bleeding from an artery – blood from an artery comes out in spurts with each beat of the heart, and is bright red and usually hard to control
- you experience persisting or significant loss of sensation near the wound or you’re having trouble moving any body parts
- you have received a severe cut to the face – you may require urgent treatment to prevent scarring
- you have received a cut to the palm of your hand and it looks infected – these types of infection can spread quickly
- there’s a possibility a foreign body is still inside the wound
- the wound is very large or the injury has caused a lot of tissue damage
In A&E, your wound will be examined to determine whether there’s any risk of infection. You may need a booster injection to prevent tetanus, and your wound may be closed with stitches, strips or special glue before a dressing is applied.
If your wound is at risk of infection, it won’t usually be closed because this may trap any infection inside. Instead, it will be packed with a non-sticky dressing before being covered with a protective dressing until it’s safe to close.
[Last reviewed 2018-10-18]
Most head injuries aren’t serious. You don’t usually need to go to hospital and should make a full recovery within 2 weeks.
Go to A&E after a head injury if you or your child have:
- been knocked out but have now woken up
- been vomiting since the injury
- a headache that doesn’t go away with painkillers
- a change in behaviour, like being more irritable
- problems with memory
- been drinking alcohol or taking drugs just before the injury
- a blood clotting disorder (like haemophilia) or take blood-thinners (like warfarin)
- had brain surgery in the past
You or your child could have concussion.
Symptoms usually start within 24 hours but sometimes may not appear for up to 3 weeks.
Call 999 if someone has hit their head and has:
- been knocked out and hasn’t woken up
- difficulty staying awake or keeping their eyes open
- a fit (seizure)
- problems with their vision
- clear fluid coming from their ears or nose
- bleeding from their ears or bruising behind their ears
- numbness or weakness in part of their body
- problems with walking, balance, understanding, speaking or writing
- hit their head in a serious accident, such as a car crash
Also call 999 if you can’t get someone to A&E safely.
How to treat a minor head injury
If you don’t need to go to hospital, you can usually look after yourself or your child at home.
It’s normal to have symptoms such as a slight headache, or feeling sick or dazed, for up to 2 weeks.
To help recovery:
hold an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas in a tea towel) to the injury regularly for short periods in the first few days to bring down any swelling
go back to work or school until you’re feeling better
rest and avoid stress – you or your child don’t need to stay awake if you’re tired
drive until you feel you’ve fully recovered
take paracetamol to relieve pain or a headache – don’t use ibuprofen or aspirin as they could cause the injury to bleed
play contact sports for at least 3 weeks – children should avoid rough play for a few days
make sure an adult stays with you or your child for at least the first 24 hours – call 111 for advice if there’s no one who can stay with you
take drugs or drink alcohol until you’re feeling better
take sleeping pills while you’re recovering – unless a doctor advises you to
See a GP if:
- your or your child’s symptoms last more than 2 weeks
- you’re not sure if it’s safe for you to drive or return to work, school or sports
[Last reviewed 2018-04-04]
Norovirus, also called the “winter vomiting bug”, is a stomach bug that causes vomiting and diarrhoea. It can be very unpleasant, but usually goes away in about 2 days.
Check if you have norovirus
The main symptoms of norovirus are:
- feeling sick (nausea)
- being sick (vomiting)
You may also have:
- a high temperature of 38C or above
- a headache
- aching arms and legs
The symptoms start suddenly within 1 to 2 days of being infected.
How to treat norovirus yourself
You can usually treat yourself or your child at home.
You should start to feel better in a day or two.
Stay off school or work until the symptoms have stopped for 2 days. Also avoid visiting anyone in hospital during this time.
This is when you’re most infectious.
How norovirus is spread
Norovirus can spread very easily.
You can catch norovirus from:
- close contact with someone with norovirus
- touching surfaces or objects that have been touched by someone with norovirus
- eating food that has been prepared or handled by someone with norovirus
Washing your hands frequently with soap and water is the best way to stop it spreading. Alcohol hand gels don’t kill norovirus.
[Last reviewed 2018-04-23]
Cold sores are common and usually clear up on their own within 10 days. They’re contagious until they go away.
Check if it’s a cold sore
A cold sore usually starts with a tingling, itching or burning feeling.
Over the next 48 hours
Cold sores should start to heal within 10 days, but may spread and be irritating or painful while they heal.
Some people find that certain things trigger a cold sore, such as another illness, sunshine or periods.
When it’s not a cold sore
|Painful red spot on the face filled with pus||spot or boil|
|Blister on the lip or inside the mouth||mouth ulcer|
|Red sores or blisters on the face that become crusty, golden-brown patches||impetigo|
A pharmacist can help with cold sores
A pharmacist can recommend:
- creams to ease pain and irritation
- antiviral creams to speed up healing time
- cold sore patches to protect the skin while it heals
You can buy electronic devices from pharmacies that treat cold sores with light or lasers. Some people find these helpful, but there haven’t been many studies to find out if they work.
If you regularly get cold sores, use antiviral creams as soon as you recognise the early tingling feeling. They don’t always work after blisters appear.
Things you can do yourself
Cold sores take time to heal and they’re very contagious, especially when the blisters burst.
Don’t kiss babies if you have a cold sore. It can lead to neonatal herpes, which is very dangerous to newborn babies.
eat cool, soft foods
eat acidic or salty food
use an antiseptic mouthwash if it hurts to brush your teeth
touch your cold sore (apart from applying cream)
wash your hands with soap and water before and after applying cream
rub cream into the cold sore – dab it on instead
avoid anything that triggers your cold sores
kiss anyone while you have a cold sore
use sunblock lip balm (SPF 15 or above) if sunshine is the trigger
share anything that comes into contact with a cold sore (such as cold sore creams, cutlery or lipstick)
take paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease pain and swelling (liquid paracetamol is available for children) – don’t give aspirin to children under 16
have oral sex until your cold sore completely heals – the cold sore virus also causes genital herpes
drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
wash your hands with soap and water before and after applying cream
See a GP if:
- the cold sore hasn’t started to heal within 10 days
- you’re worried about a cold sore or think it’s something else
- the cold sore is very large or painful
- you or your child also have swollen, painful gums and sores in the mouth (gingivostomatitis)
- you’re pregnant – there’s an increased risk of neonatal herpes
- you have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes
Treatment from a GP
The GP may prescribe antiviral tablets if your cold sores are very large, painful or keep coming back.
Newborn babies, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system may be referred to hospital for advice or treatment.
Why cold sores come back
Cold sores are caused by a virus called herpes simplex.
Once you have the virus, it stays in your skin for the rest of your life. Sometimes it causes a cold sore.
Most people are exposed to the virus when they’re young after close contact with someone who has a cold sore.
It doesn’t usually cause any symptoms until you’re older. You won’t know if it’s in your skin unless you get a cold sore.
[Last reviewed 2017-04-07]