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How long should a cold last?

Written and medically reviewed by Dorcas Morak, Pharm.D

Updated on March 21st, 2023

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The common cold is self-limiting, meaning that it resolves on its own and has no long-term effects on your health. However, how long it takes to completely recover from its uncomfortable symptoms can vary. While symptoms and duration of a cold can be unpredictable, they do typically follow a regular pattern. Read on to learn more about the stages of a cold and how long it should last.

What is a cold?

A cold is an upper respiratory tract viral infection that affects the nose, sinuses, voice box, and throat. There are more than 200 distinct viruses that can cause a cold, but rhinovirus is the most prevalent.

How do colds spread?

Cold-causing viruses are infectious and can be transmitted from an infected person to another person through coughing or sneezing. Additionally, they can spread through close contact with an infected person. Shaking hands, contacting an infected surface, or using unwashed hands to touch the eyes, nose, or mouth are other ways the disease can spread.

When are colds most prevalent?

Although you can come down with a cold at any time of the year, there are significantly more cases in the fall and winter. On average, teens and adults get 2 to 3 colds a year, whereas kids can get 6 to 10.

How long does a typical cold last?

Cold symptoms set in about 8 to 10 hours after contracting the virus. However, most severe symptoms can take up to three days to appear following exposure. Symptoms often last between 7 to 10 days but can last up to three weeks.

What are the stages of a cold?

1. Incubation stage: Incubation is the initial phase following cold virus exposure. The virus multiplies quickly during this time and starts attacking your body's cells. You can begin to experience symptoms 10 to 12 hours after exposure.

2. Symptoms peak: This is the time when the majority of cold symptoms are at their worst. Sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, cough, body aches, sneezing, fever, and headaches are some of the symptoms. Symptoms reach their peak 1 to 3 days following exposure.

3. Fading of symptoms: This stage happens 3 to 10 days after exposure. Mucus discharge may turn from white to yellow or green at this stage.

4. After 10 days: At this stage, you may have some lingering symptoms that may last up to 2 weeks. These include runny nose, stuffy nose, and cough.

How long is a cold contagious?

If you have symptoms, you are contagious. In most cases, you can transmit the infection a few days before symptoms begin. However, the first two to three days after your symptoms peak are when you are most contagious.

How can I reduce the spread of cold?

You can reduce the spread of the cold virus most effectively by taking measures to minimize your exposure to other individuals. Stay at home when you're sick, keep sick kids out of school or daycare, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and wash your hands frequently.

Do antibiotics help a cold?

Because a cold is a viral infection, antibiotics won't help. Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections like strep throat and urinary tract infections. However, if you show signs and symptoms of a bacterial co-infection, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics.

How can I speed up my recovery?

There are many home remedies and over-the-counter medications to get rid of your runny nose and other symptoms of the cold quickly. Some home remedies are:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • using a humidifier
  • getting plenty of rest
  • using honey to relieve cough in adults and children ages one and older

You can use over the counter (OTC) medications alone or in combination with home remedies for faster relief. Some OTC medications for cold include:

When should I see a doctor?

Consider seeing a doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • your symptoms don't go away in 10-14 days
  • you experience dehydration, breathing difficulties, symptoms that worsen, or a fever that lasts for more than 4 days
  • you have an infant 2 months old or younger who has a fever

How do I choose the right medication for my cold?

Your symptoms will determine the best cold medicine for you. Learn how to select the best medications here.

By using an RxLess prescription discount card, you can reduce the cost of your cold medicine. The card can help you save up to 88% on your prescription and over-the-counter medications in most pharmacies including Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid.

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