How Long Does a Cold Last?

It often starts with a funny feeling in your throat. But soon, you start to experience more of the tell-tale signs of the common cold:

  • A congested or runny nose.
  • A sore throat.
  • Coughing and sneezing.
  • Watery eyes.
  • A low fever. (This is a less common symptom).

It’s not surprising that many want to stop a cold in its tracks. While some say vitamins or other supplements help, researchers haven’t proven that they hasten recovery. But knowing how long a cold lasts can help you look forward to feeling like yourself again.

How Long Does a Cold Last?

In adults, cold can last seven to 10 days. The symptoms usually are at the worst in the first three to four days.

Many different viruses cause the common cold. Most often, a variant of the rhinovirus is the culprit. But other viruses, including adenoviruses and coronaviruses, also can cause cold symptoms.

(Although in the coronavirus family, a COVID illness is usually not a common cold. It often causes more severe symptoms and lasts longer.)

Wondering why a cold seems to go on for longer than previous colds, or have more symptoms? Colds can last shorter or longer than a week, depending on the virus causing them.

Their symptoms can vary too. With some colds, the main symptom is a sore throat, while with others, congestion is the biggest issue.

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What Can You Do to Recover from a Cold Faster?

Although colds need to run their course, medications can provide short-term relief of your symptoms. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can reduce body aches or low fevers.

Decongestants, also sold without a prescription, can relieve stuffy noses. Lozenges and cough suppressants can help with sore throats and coughing.

If you’re pregnant, ask your doctor which OTC medications are safe to take. Many are not recommended during pregnancy.

Doctors also advise against some OTC pain relievers (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen) for people with asthma and stomach ulcers. If you’re not sure if you should take a medication, talk to your doctor.

Other non-drug options, like running a humidifier and using a salt-water spray to break up congestion, also can reduce symptoms.

The most important tools in your toolbox are plenty of rest and fluids. These will help your immune system fight the virus. Limit caffeine, which can be dehydrating, and stick to drinks like herbal tea, juice, and water.

What Are the Stages of a Cold?

Colds typically start with a tingling, sore, or scratchy throat. Usually, over the next few days, other symptoms of the cold present. They can include a stuffed-up or runny nose, body aches, fatigue, a headache, and watery eyes.

Coughs usually start a bit later, typically by day four. Around this time, other symptoms, like congestion, start to get better. However, common colds don’t always follow these typical cold stages.

Toward the latter half of the cold, you may find the mucus thickens and looks darker in color. This is a sign your immune system has sent more virus-fighting proteins to the nasal passages.

What If My Cold Lasts Longer Than Two Weeks?

Some people have cold symptoms for longer than a week.

A cold can spread to the bronchial tubes – that is, the tubes that carry air to the lungs. If you get bronchitis, your cough may continue for up to three weeks. You also may feel a soreness in your chest.

Your cold also can drag on if it infects the sinuses. Like bronchitis, sinusitis also can last up to three weeks. If you have sinusitis, you may feel tenderness and pressure around your eyes and forehead.

You can treat bronchitis and sinusitis at home — as long as you feel like you’re getting better after 10 days. If you feel like your symptoms take a turn for the worse after 10 days, see a doctor.

In rare cases, the common cold also can lead to pneumonia — a lung infection that may require treatment. Pneumonia symptoms include chest pain while breathing, a rapid heartbeat, a high fever, and sweating and shivering.

If your cold symptoms aren’t going away but aren’t getting worse, you may have another condition, like allergies.

When Should You See a Doctor for Cold Symptoms?

In addition to seeing a doctor if you don’t improve after 10 days, you also should see a doctor for unusual symptoms. A very sore throat, painful swallowing, and a fever above 101°F may indicate something that requires prompt treatment (like strep throat).

And if you’re having worrying symptoms — like trouble breathing or coughing up blood — you should head to the ER.

How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

People can pass on a cold a day or two before symptoms start. They remain contagious as long as they have symptoms. However, colds are especially contagious in the first few days you have symptoms.

You can spread a cold from coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, or even just talking near someone else.

While colds are a fact of life – most adults get two colds a year – they’re certainly not fun. To avoid spreading the misery to others in your household, follow these tips:

  • Wash your hands often when you have cold symptoms.
  • Be sure to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow, under your shirt, or into a tissue. If you cough or sneeze into your hand, be sure to wash or sanitize your hands immediately.
  • Keep distance from others in your household. If you normally share a bedroom with someone, try to sleep somewhere else if you can. If you don’t have an extra bedroom, have someone sleep on the sofa (covered with sheets).
  • Clean high-touch surfaces often, like bathroom and kitchen faucets, door knobs, light switches, and countertops. Use disinfecting spray or wipes if you have them.
  • If the weather allows, open windows (even if just an inch or two) for ventilation.
  • Don’t share cups, glasses, or eating utensils.

It’s best to avoid others not in your household, especially in indoor settings. If you have to leave the house before your symptoms have resolved, wear a mask to avoid spreading the virus to others.

Sources

American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold. Link

Centers for Disease Control. Common colds: Protect yourself and others. Link

Centers for Disease Control. Chest cold (acute bronchitis). Link

Centers for Disease Control. Common cold. Link

Centers for Disease Control. Sinus infection (sinusitis). Link

Dr. Rachel Schare. Colds. Nemours Kids Health. Link

National Library of Medicine. Common Cold. Link

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