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How Long Does the Common Cold Last?

When we talk about the common cold, we’re referring to a specific group of symptoms that typically include a runny nose and congestion, among other things. The common cold is a viral infection that affects the nose and throat, but while we typically refer to the cold virus as if it is one specific sickness, it is actually caused by more than 200 different viruses. Rhinoviruses cause more colds than any other virus, at an estimated 10 to 40 percent of colds, while the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is another common cause. Most adults catch an average of two to four cold viruses per year, with the majority of infections occurring between September and May, while children suffer from between six to eight colds per year on average. Everyone catches a cold occasionally, so we all know how unpleasant they are. When you’re sick, you just want to get better as quickly as possible, so how long does the common cold last?

How Long Does the Common Cold Last?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that recovery from the common cold takes most adults about seven to ten days. Children are often sick for longer, sometimes up to two weeks.  Not the answer you were hoping for? The cold actually has three distinct phases, including the early phase, peak phase, and late phase, each of which is marked by different cold symptoms. 

Early Symptoms

The first signs of a cold set in fairly quickly after you’ve picked up the virus - typically within just ten to twelve hours of infection. Most people notice that their throat begins to feel sore or scratchy, and they often feel more tired than normal. Most people experience the early symptoms of a cold for the first two or three days before their symptoms escalate. 
 
Peak Symptoms

The cold reaches its peak about two to three days after infection, and this is when most people feel their worst. The sore and scratchy throat continues to escalate and tiredness turns to fatigue and body aches. At this point, many people develop a runny or congested nose, start sneezing and experience other symptoms, including a low-grade fever, watery eyes, a cough, or headache. This peak period typically lasts another two to three days depending on how much rest you are able to get and how well you take care of yourself during this time. After two to three days, peak symptoms transition into late symptoms.

Late Symptoms

The final phase of common cold side effects including nasal congestion continues for the last three to five days, with the discharge sometimes appearing yellow or green in color. Contrary to popular belief, a colored discharge is not necessarily a sign of bacterial infection; in this case, it simply means that your immune system is fighting off the virus. A person’s cough or fatigue may continue to linger, especially if the patient is not able to get adequate rest while fighting the cold. Overall, most adults will experience a cold for seven to ten days, but they can last for several weeks in some patients. 

How Do Colds Affect Children Differently?

As previously noted, children are often sicker for longer than adults when they catch the common cold, and they get sick more often. Colds in children can last for up to two weeks or more. Children experience all of the same symptoms described above for adults in addition to other symptoms that are unique to kids, including:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Diminished appetite
  • Difficulty breastfeeding or eating

 Children can also develop complications from colds more easily because their immune systems are not as strong as adult immune systems. Common complications of colds can include ear infections, sinus infections, and chest infections. Symptoms of each complication are as follows:

  • Ear infection: Marked by increased irritability, ear scratching, or ear rubbing
  • Sinus infection: Nasal congestion, discharge that appears for more than ten days, the face is tender to the touch, possible fever
  • Chest infection: Marked by difficulty breathing, wheezing, widening nostrils, etc. 

How Can I Get Rid of a Cold More Quickly?

Everyone wants to get back to work and school and get on with their lives when they’re sick, but recovering from a cold doesn’t happen overnight. The best way to recover from a cold quickly is to start resting as soon as you notice an onset of symptoms. Otherwise, because the cold is caused by any number of different viruses, you can’t treat it with antibiotics or other medications; you can only treat the symptoms. Commonly recommended medications for the treatment of symptoms include:

  • Taking over the counter (OTC) pain relievers like ibuprofen, Tylenol, and acetaminophen to relieve symptoms of fever, headache, or muscle aches and pains
  • Taking over the counter decongestants or using a nasal spray to reduce nasal congestion
  • Taking over the counter antihistamines to treat runny nose, watery or itchy eyes, and reduce sneezing
  • Taking over the counter expectorants to make your cough more productive
  • Taking a zinc or Vitamin C supplement at the onset of a cold in order to reduce the length of symptoms

If you’d prefer not to take medication, you can also take good care of yourself at home with these basic home remedies:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated; this keeps mucus from thickening
  • Using throat lozenges or gargling with salt water to ease a sore throat
  • Adding honey to a cup of warm tea to quiet a cough
  • Placing a humidifier in the room where you’re resting to add moisture to the air, which can help reduce nasal congestion 
  • Taking a hot shower to loosen up congestion
  • Getting plenty of rest

Of course, you want to get well soon, but you also want to prevent others from getting sick and catching your cold. The cold is an infectious disease and it spreads most easily when your symptoms are at their peak. While you’re sick, avoid close contact with people (shaking hands, hugging, kissing, etc), cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your arm when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands regularly (especially after sneezing or coughing), and disinfect any surface that you touch. Your friends, family, and coworkers will thank you!

Published July 16th, 2020 by Bridget Reed
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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