How Long Does a Cold Last: Duration and Stages

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed
October 26, 2021

Having a cold is no fun. But as the name says, they’re extremely common: Adults have an average of 2-3 colds every year and, and children have even more.

There’s no cure yet, so for most colds, you just have to wait for your body to recover.

But for how long? How long should a cold last?

In this article, I’ll run down some of the basics of the common cold—its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and how you can prevent them.

I’ll also talk about the different stages of the common cold, and answer the burning question: How long will you have that cold?

Finally, I’ll discuss when you should see a doctor.

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Common Cold Basics

The “common cold” is a broad term for an illness that can be caused by a number of viruses.

If you’re lucky enough not to have had a cold in a while, let’s start with the basics.

Symptoms

Typically, a sore throat and runny nose are the first signs of a cold, followed by coughing and excessive sneezing.

Cold symptoms tend to surface 1-3 days after being exposed to a virus that causes colds.

Other symptoms can vary, and may include:

  • Stuffy nose
  • Hoarseness
  • Congestion
  • Headache
  • Slight body aches
  • Low-grade fever
  • Generally feeling ill
  • Thicker nasal discharge that is yellow/green in color

Because symptoms of the common cold are similar to those of the flu, it can be hard to differentiate between the two.

This is especially true since both illnesses spread around the same time of year.

Fevers and chills are more common with the flu, as are body aches.

These symptoms will rarely be seen with the common cold. However, the flu won’t always cause a fever.

Nausea and vomiting are more common signs of the flu that almost never happen with the common cold.

Headaches are a more frequent symptom of flu infections in both adults and children.

Causes

There are more than 200 viruses that can cause a cold, and these come from several virus families: rhinoviruses, seasonal coronaviruses, or parainfluenza viruses.

Seasonal coronaviruses are not the same thing as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 infection.

Rhinoviruses are responsible for 40-50% of all colds.

A virus can spread through droplets of saliva or mucus that is released into the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or even talks.

The cold virus can also spread by hand-to-hand contact with someone who is infected, or by sharing contaminated objects like towels, phones, toys, computer keyboards, or utensils.

Diagnosis

Generally, you don’t need to see the doctor for a common cold.

But if symptoms get worse or last longer than 10 days, it is recommended that you contact your healthcare provider.

They will check for common cold symptoms.

If your provider suspects you have the flu or another condition, you may need additional tests. 

Treatment

Colds will clear up on their own without specific medical treatment.

Antibiotics won’t help: The cold is caused by viruses, and antibiotics only work on bacterial infections.

In fact, no medicine can cure a cold, but over-the-counter “cold and flu” remedies may help ease your symptoms.

In addition, some research shows that zinc lozenges might be able to shorten the duration of certain cold symptoms if taken as soon as you notice symptoms.

In addition to over-the-counter (OTC) medications, there are other remedies that will help ease your symptoms and, hopefully, speed up your recovery.

These include: 

  • Staying hydrated
  • Consuming hot liquids
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Taking various vitamins and supplements
  • Gargling warm salt water
  • Using a hot pack for sinuses
  • Placing a humidifier near your bed

Prevention

While no vaccinations currently exist, there are ways to reduce your chances of catching a cold.

  • Clean your hands often and thoroughly: Use either soap and water for 20 seconds per wash, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your face: Also, avoid putting your fingers in your mouth.
  • Clean shared spaces and items: Use disinfectant, especially on countertops, toys, phones, computer keyboards, TV remotes, and other items that are touched by multiple people often.
  • Use tissues when sneezing or coughing: Immediately wash your hands after throwing them out. If tissues aren’t available, sneeze or cough into the bend of your elbow.
  • Don’t share glasses or eating utensils: This is especially important if someone is already sick.
  • Eat well, stay well hydrated, and get enough exercise: These will help keep your immune system strong.
  • Stay home when you’re sick: You’ll avoid giving others your cold. When you’re out, avoid close contact with anyone else who has a cold.

Lastly, getting enough sleep can also help you keep your immune system healthy enough to fend off colds.

Try to get 8 or more hours of quality sleep every night.

Stages of Common Cold

Colds typically last between 7-10 days, and can be broken down into several stages from the initial transmission to recovery. 

Incubation Period

The typical incubation period for a cold is 1-3 days.

This means a cold virus can enter your body 24-72 hours before you start to experience symptoms.

Despite not knowing you have a cold yet, you can still be contagious during this time. 

Symptoms Appear

During these first few days, the first symptom shown by many patients are a runny nose or an irritated or sore throat.

Sore throats can occur as early as 10 hours after infection.

What follows can be congestion, a runny nose, and sneezing, as well as fatigue and body aches.

Coughing and hoarseness can also occur.

Symptoms typically peak in their intensity during days 4-7.

Your entire body may hurt, and your nose and eyes may be running non-stop.

You may even have a fever, as it’s your body’s natural way to defend its compromised immune system. 

Remission

As you enter the remission phase, your symptoms should begin to dissipate.

The symptoms should fully subside in 3-10 days. 

Recovery

The final phase is when you begin to recover and get back to normal.

Some symptoms such as a mild cough and stuffy or runny nose may linger.

These can be managed by over-the-counter medications if needed. 

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When To See a Doctor

While the common cold can knock you off your feet, the treatments and remedies shared in this article should help relieve your symptoms and fight off the cold.

However, there can be signs that suggest that you should see a doctor.

If you are experiencing any of the following, see your doctor.

  • Feeling unwell despite medication.
  • You have a fever lasting more than 2 days, or despite taking fever-reducing medications.
  • You’re unable to hold down liquids.
  • You feel lightheaded.
  • Your cold symptoms persist after more than 10 days, or you have a worsening of symptoms after having some improvement.
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath.
  • Severe headache, sinus pain or ear pain.

How K Health Can Help

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Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the stages of a cold different in adults compared to children?
While the stages of a cold are generally similar in adults and children, children are more likely to develop severe symptoms which may lead to other conditions such as ear, sinus, and respiratory infections.
How long are you contagious with a cold?
The contagious period for a cold begins about one day before symptoms start, and can last as long as 5-7 days from when you first felt sick. You could be contagious as long as your symptoms are present—up to two weeks in rare cases.
Will a cold get better if left untreated?
Usually. In most cases, a cold will run its course, but ignoring symptoms and not taking proper care of yourself can cause the symptoms to worsen. Keep in mind that colds can also worsen other conditions like asthma, congestive heart failure, and kidney disorders.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.