The common cold is called that for a reason. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the US sees millions of cases of the common cold each year, with adults getting about two to three colds annually, and children getting them even more frequently. Basically: Getting a cold (especially during the winter and spring months) is unavoidable.
The good news: As far as viral infections go, the common cold is pretty harmless (at least compared to other viruses like the flu and COVID-19). The CDC say most people recover from a cold within seven to 10 days, but that people with weakened immune systems or other respiratory conditions are at an increased risk of serious illness like bronchitis or pneumonia.
While you can’t be 100% guaranteed to dodge the common cold—even with proper handwashing and staying away from sick people—you can arm yourself with information regarding all the ins and outs of the common cold, so you can be prepared for the illness, if it does happen to strike. Here, doctors help break down the timeline of the common cold—from infection, to symptom onset, to when you’ll likely start feeling better.
Like many respiratory viruses, the common cold is spread through person-to-person contact, when infected respiratory droplets from one person make their way into another person, Sterling Ransone, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, tells Health. But you don’t get sick right away—the virus needs what’s called an incubation period to replicate in your body. In the simplest terms, a virus’ incubation period is the time from when you’re first exposed to when you start feeling symptoms.
Cold viruses usually have an incubation period of 24 to 72 hours, Matthew Goldman, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. But that’s just an estimate, says Dr. Goldman, who adds that sometimes cold symptoms can show up just 10 to 12 hours after exposure. On the other end of the spectrum, the US National Library of Medicine (MedlinePlus) says it could take up to a week for your cold symptoms to present. The gist: It really depends on the person and the specific cold virus they’ve come into contact with.
It turns out, the common cold usually starts with a sore throat, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says. After that typically comes sneezing, rhinorrhea (a runny nose), nasal obstruction (stuffiness), and a general unwell feeling, per Merck Manual.
Generally speaking, adults don’t have fever with a cold, or they have a very low fever, MedlinePlus says. Children, however, may run a fever of up to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because there are many different kinds of cold viruses, you may experience other symptoms of well, per MedlinePlus, like cough, decreased appetite, headache or muscle aches, or postnasal drip.
If you’re otherwise healthy, you’ll probably experience cold symptoms for a few days—colds usually resolve within 10 days, per Merck Manual. However, certain patients—like those with weakened immune systems or other health issues—might suffer from cold symptoms for far longer. “In some patients, illness can last for months, particularly people who smoke,” says Dr. Goldman.
While 10 days may seem like a long period of time, Dr. Goldman says that the worst of a cold is usually right in the beginning. “In most cases, symptoms are usually worst in the beginning and diminish over time as the immune system builds resistance,” he says. During that time, your cold symptoms may also change—particularly your nasal symptoms, which may turn from a clear, thin liquid to a slightly thicker, discolored liquid, Merck Manual says.
One symptom that might stick around after the others have faded is your cough. “A lingering cough is typically the symptom most people may deal with for weeks to months,” Dr. Goldman says.
As far as contagiousness goes, If you have the common cold, you’re most likely to spread it shortly after infection—usually within the first two to three days, MedlinePlus says, which adds that most individuals aren’t contagious after a week. However, there’s still a slight chance you can spread the virus if you still have a cough. “If you’ve got a cough, you’re spreading respiratory droplets,” Dr. Ransone says.
Again, the common cold is relatively harmless—but it does share many symptoms with the flu and COVID-19. That means if you’ve been knowingly exposed to COVID-19 and you begin showing symptoms shortly after, it’s a good idea to get tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, so you don’t risk being infected and spreading it to others .
While many people’s immune systems are able to fight off a cold relatively easily and within a few days, there is still a chance for complications to arise. According to MedlinePlus, the first step for treating a cold is to do so at home—that means getting enough rest, fluids, and by taking over-the-counter medicines, if needed to ease symptoms. But if your symptoms don’t go away within that 10-day period, or you begin having difficulty breathing, it’s time to see a doctor.
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