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How long does a cold last: Expected time line and tips for how to get better

Everyone has a cold at some point or another, and it’s never pleasant. The illness referred to as the common cold includes a specific list of symptoms like a runny nose and sore throat among other ailments. Common colds are caused by different viral infections which attack the nose and throat, and it's not just a single cold virus your body fights off. Colds are actually caused by more than 200 different viruses, although about 10 to 40 percent of colds are caused by rhinoviruses. The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is another common cold virus, and the remainder of colds are caused by less common viruses you probably have never even heard of. Adults get infected with colds an average of two to four times per year, and the majority of infections occur during the months of September through May. Young children catch an average of six to eight colds per year. When you or your child is sick, we're sure that all you can think about is “how long does a cold last?” 

How Long Does a Cold Last?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most adults recover from the common cold in about seven to ten days, but children are generally sick for longer; children may experience symptoms of a cold for up to two weeks. If that seems like a long time, take comfort in knowing that there are multiple phases of the cold, and symptoms vary in severity throughout the phases. There are three stages of the common cold, each of which is marked by different cold symptoms. 

What are the Phases and Symptoms of a Cold?

Early Symptoms

Your first symptoms set in quickly after you pick up the virus, with early symptoms appearing just ten to twelve hours after infection. Early signs of a cold often include a sore throat that also feels scratchy, as well as feeling more tired than usual, which isn't surprising considering your immune system is gearing up for an internal body fight. These early symptoms are generally present for two or three days before getting worse and moving into the peak symptoms phase. 

Peak Symptoms

Approximately two to three days after infection, peak cold symptoms develop. During this phase of the virus, most people feel their worst and experience the most cold symptoms. Scratchy and sore throats get worse and more persistent, while tiredness becomes fatigue and muscle aches. It is common at this stage to develop a runny or stuffy nose or to start sneezing, and some people may develop a low-grade fever, cough, headache, or watery eyes, very similar to flu symptoms even though the cold may not necessarily be the actual flu. Peak symptoms are usually present for about two to three days, and how long they last is often dependent on how much the patient can rest, hydrate, and take care of themselves. Fortunately, this phase is usually short lived and transitions to the late symptoms phase quickly. 

Late Symptoms

The final three to five days of a cold are characterized by the late symptoms, including nasal congestion that may appear green or yellow in color. Although many people believe that colored discharge is a sign of bacterial infection, in cases of the common cold, it just means that your immune system is working to fight off the virus and you don't necessarily have a bacterial infection or upper respiratory infection to get worked up about. In the late stages of a cold, cough and fatigue may still persist, especially if the person has not rested adequately or hasn't had plenty of fluids to help support the immune system during earlier stages. 

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Are Colds Different for Kids?

Young children are usually sicker for longer periods than adults, and they experience colds and viral infections more often. For the most part, the symptoms experienced by children and adults are the same, although other symptoms are unique to kids, including:

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Difficulty breastfeeding or eating

  • Diminished appetite

In addition to becoming more sick, children also are more likely to develop complications from colds because their immune systems are weak compared to those of adults.  Common complications of colds in children include sinus infections, ear infections, and chest/upper respiratory infections, noticeable by the following symptoms:

  • Sinus infection: Nasal congestion, discharge that appears for more than ten days, the face is tender to the touch, possible fever

  • Ear infection: Marked by increased irritability, ear scratching, or ear rubbing

  • Chest/upper respiratory infection: Marked by trouble breathing, wheezing, widening nostrils, etc.

What Can I Do to Get Over a Cold More Quickly?

With busy lives, work, and school, getting sick is a major inconvenience, and everyone wants to get better as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, recovering from a cold won’t happen overnight. Although it’s not the answer that anyone wants to hear, resting as soon as you notice any symptoms of a cold is the best way to get over a cold more quickly. Because the cold is caused by a virus rather than bacteria, it can’t be cured with antibiotics or other medications. Well, what about cold medicines? Cold medicines can treat the symptoms of a cold, and often don't have noticeable side effects either aside from drowsiness, which isn't a side effect of all cold medicines. 

Commonly recommended medications for the treatment of cold symptoms include:

  • Over the counter pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil/Motrin (ibuprofen) to relieve symptoms of headache, fever, or muscle aches and pains

  • Over the counter decongestants or nasal spray to reduce nasal congestion

  • Over the counter antihistamines to treat watery or itchy eyes, runny nose, and sneezing

  • Over the counter expectorants to make your cough more productive

  • Zinc or Vitamin C supplements at the start of a cold to support your immune system 

Some people prefer not to take medication. It’s also possible to treat your cold symptoms at home using these at-home remedies:

  • Using throat lozenges or gargling with salt water to ease a sore throat

  • Adding honey to a cup of warm tea to soothe sore throats

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, helping to keep mucus from thickening

  • Taking a hot shower to loosen up congestion

  • Getting plenty of rest

  • Placing a humidifier in the room where you’re resting to add moisture to the air, which can help reduce nasal congestion and soothe dry sore throats

Make sure to wash your hands regularly and avoid close contact with people if you’re sick, as well as to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your arm when you cough or sneeze and disinfect any surface that you touch. This will help stop your cold from spreading.

Sources:

https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/influenza/facts-about-the-common-cold 

https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html 

https://www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/how-long-does-a-cold-last 

Published July 31st, 2020 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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