Understanding Stages of the Common Cold

If you’re getting that first tickle of a cold, you may wonder what the next week has in store.

Colds don’t always follow the same pattern. That’s because there are some 200 commonly circulating viruses that cause colds. And different strains can cause slightly different cold symptoms.

Symptoms can vary according to age, underlying conditions, and immunity from past colds. But there are some general common cold stages you can expect.

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Common Cold Stages

Common cold symptoms are usually worse in the first three days but should resolve after a week. Here’s what you can expect.

The incubation period

Before you get any symptoms, the virus secretly reproduces in your body. People are quite contagious during this incubation period without realizing it. Most people only develop symptoms about two or three days after exposure to the cold virus.

Days one to three: Runny nose, sore throat, and sneezing

Your cold may start with a runny nose. Or it may start with a sore or scratchy throat.

In addition to a sore throat and congestion, you may experience sneezing and watery eyes. Some people may experience slight body aches or mild fatigue with a cold.

When is the worst day of a cold?

The worst day of the common cold is often day two or three. That’s when symptoms peak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If your sore throat is painful, lozenges and over-the-counter pain relievers, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can make you feel better. Drinking plenty of fluids will help your body produce free-flowing mucus and leave you feeling less stuffed up.

You may also want to take a decongestant from the drug store in pill or spray form. These medications can cause worsened congestion if overused, so avoid taking them for more than three days.

When to See a Doctor About a Cold

Colds can develop into pneumonia, especially in people with weakened immune systems and older people. If you have any symptoms of pneumonia, including chest pain, a high fever, difficulty breathing, or vomiting, call your doctor right away.

Some people may find their cough continues for many weeks. If that’s your only symptom, and your cough seems to improve with time, you don’t have to worry.

But you should see your doctor if your cough lasts beyond eight weeks. A persistent cough may require tests to make sure you don’t have a lung problem.

American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold. Link

American Lung Association. Chronic Cough symptoms and diagnosis. Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold. Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Link

Medline Plus. How to treat the common cold at home. Link

Drs. Daniel Sexton and Michael McClain. The common cold in adults (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Link

Dr. Brenda Tesini. Common cold. Merck Manual. Link

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