Common infections and Minor illnesses

(Colds, Coughs, Sore Throats, Diarrhoea, Ear Infections and Urinary Tract Infections (UTI) etc)

When to seek help and when to treat common infections yourself

Click on links below for advice on managing common infections:

Managing your infection a step by step guide on how to manage your infection

UTI Leaflet Version 17

Colds, sore throats, most coughs, sinusitis, ear infections and other infections usually get better without antibiotics, as your body can usually fight these infections on it’s own.

The more we use antibiotics, the greater the chance that bacteria will become resistant to them so that they no longer work when we really need them.

Antibiotics can cause side effects such as rashes, thrush, stomach pains, diarrhoea, reactions to sunlight, or being sick if you drink alcohol with Metronidazole. So again, they should only be taken when really necessary.

Never share antibiotics or take someone elses. You should always return unused antibiotics to a pharmacy for a safe disposal. Different antibiotics are used for different types of infections so you should never just take what has been left before in the cupboard, as it probably is completely pointless but will make you resistant to antiobiotics for when you really need them.

Length of infections

Colds usually last 10 days – 2 weeks.

Sore throats usually last 7 days

Middle ear infections usually last 4 days

Sinusitis usually lasts 18 days

Coughs usually last 21 days ( if you have known COPD and then you should seek help)

Flu usually lasts 2 weeks

How to treat yourself better for these infections, now and next time

Have plenty of rest

Drink enough fluids to avoid feeling thirsty

Ask your pharmacist to recommend over-the counter medicines to help your symptoms or pain (or both) – usually paracetamol is the best option.

Fever is a sign the body if fighting the infection and usually gets better by itself in most cases. You can use paracetamol (or ibruprofen) if you or your child are uncomfortable as a result of fever.

Numbers 1-8 are possible signs of serious illness and should be assessed urgently.

Phone for advice if you are not sure how urgent the symptoms are.

  1. if you develop a severe headache and you are sick.
  2. if your skin is very cold or have a strange colour, or you develop an unusual rash.
  3. if you feel confused or have slurred speech or are very drowsy.
  4. if you have difficulty breathing. Signs can include: breathly quickly, turning blue around the lips and the skin below the mouth, skin between or above the ribs getting sucked or pulled in with every breath.
  5. if you develop chest pain
  6. if you have difficulty swallowing or are drooling
  7. if you cough up blood
  8. if you are feeling a lot worse then you did before, when you already felt bad

Less serious signs that can usually wait until the next available GP appointment:

If you are not improving by the time given in the “usually last” section.

In children with middle-ear infection: if fluid is coming out of their ears or if they have a new deafness


What’s the difference between the Cold and the Flu?

A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It can cause nasal stuffiness, a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough. Usually it’s a self-limiting infection – this means it gets better by itself without the need for treatment.

On average, adults have two to five colds each year and school-age children can have up to eight colds a year. Adults who come into contact with children tend to get more colds. This is because children usually carry more of the virus, for longer.  In the UK, you’re more likely to get a cold during the winter months although the reasons why aren’t fully understood at present.


The best way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is plenty of fluids and rest. 

Get better without using antibiotics


There are a number of self-help measures that may help to ease the symptoms of a cold.

  • Drinking enough fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Steam inhalations with menthol, salt water nasal sprays or drops may be helpful.
  • Vapour rubs may help relieve symptoms for children.
  • Hot drinks (particularly with lemon), hot soups and spicy foods can help to ease irritation and pain in your throat.
  • Sucking sweets or lozenges which contain menthol or eucalyptus may sooth your throat.
  • Gargling with salt water may help a sore throat.

You should try to make sure you get enough rest if you have a cold. It’s not usually necessary to stay off work or school.

This page explains the need to get the right treatment for common illnesses such as colds and coughs without encouraging antibiotic resistance.

How should I treat my cold?

The best way to treat most colds, coughs or sore throats is to drink plenty of fluids and to rest.  Colds can last 10 days to two weeks and may end with a cough and bringing up phlegm.  There are many over the counter remedies to ease the symptoms – paracetamol, for example, see self -help above.  Ask your pharmacist for advice.  If the cold lasts more than three weeks, or you become breathless or have chest or have chest pains, or already have a chest complaint, see your doctor.

What about my children, they’re always getting coughs and colds?

It’s very common for children to get coughs and colds, especially when they go to school and mix with other children.  Hot drinks, rest and regular paracetamol can help with symptoms.  If the symptoms persist and you are concerned, see your doctor but you shouldn’t expect to be prescribed antibiotics.

Why should antibiotics not be used to treat coughs and colds?

 All colds and most coughs are caused by viruses.  Antibiotics do not work against infections, such as colds, caused by viruses.  Viral infections are much more common than bacterial infections.

imagesCAKJ6WQRWhat are antibiotics?

 Antibiotics are important medicines used to treat infections caused by bacteria.  Bacteria can adapt and find ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic.  They become ‘antibiotic resistant’ so that the antibiotic no longer works.  The more often we use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to it.  Some bacteria that cause infections in hospitals, such as MRSA, are resistant to several antibiotics.

Why can’t different antibiotics be used instead?

They can, but they may not be as effective, and they may have more side-effects.  And eventually the bacteria will become resistant to them too.  We cannot be sure we will always be able to find new antibiotics to replace the old ones.  In recent years fewer new antibiotics have been discovered.

How can antibiotic resistance be avoided?

By using antibiotics less often we can slow down the development of resistance.  It’s not possible to stop it completely, but slowing it down stops resistance spreading and buys some time to develop new types of antibiotics.

What can I do about antibiotic resistance?

By only using antibiotics when it’s appropriate to do so.  We now know that most coughs and colds get better just as quickly without antibiotics.  When they are prescribed, the complete course should be taken in order to get rid of the bacteria completely.  If the course isn’t completed, some bacteria may be left to develop resistance.

So when will I be prescribed antibiotics?

Your doctor will only prescribe antibiotics when you need them, for example for a kidney infection or pneumonia, or if you have COPD and have a chest infection.  Antibiotics may be life-saving for infections such as meningitis.  By not using them unnecessarily, they are more likely to work when we need them.



Acute diarrhoea is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection and affects almost everyone from time to time.  A common cause in both children and adults is gastroenteritis, an infection of the bowel.

Bouts of diarrhoea in adults may also be brought on by anxiety or drinking too much coffee or alcohol. Diarrhoea may also be a side effect of a medication.

Diarrhoea as a result of cancer treatment:

Minor Illness

Every year, millions of us visit our GP with minor health problems that can be easily resolved without a doctor’s appointment.

It is estimated that every year, 50 million visits to the GP are made for minor ailments such as coughs and colds, mild eczema, and athlete’s foot. By visiting your pharmacy instead, you could save yourself time and trouble.


 Keeping a well stocked medicine cabinet at home can help you treat many minor ailments. Colds, coughs, indigestion and many other minor complaints can all be treated with medicines that are available over the counter.

Your pharmacist can advise on what you might find useful to keep in your medicine cabinet. Always follow the instructions on the medicine label and consult your doctor if the illness continues or becomes more severe.

Your Local Pharmacist

Pharmacists offer professional free health advice at any time – you don’t need an appointment. From coughs and colds to aches and pains, they can give you expert help on everyday illnesses. They can answer questions about prescribed and over-the-counter medicines. Your local Pharmacist can also advise on healthy eating.

Pharmacists can also advise on health eating, obesity and giving up smoking. Some pharmacists have private areas where you can talk in confidence. They may suggest you visit your GP for more serious symptoms. It is possible to purchase many medicines from the chemist without a prescription.  Watch this short video on how you can get the most out of your local pharmacy