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How Long Does a Cold Last?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola

Family blowing noses in napkins

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most cases of colds in children usually go away in about five to seven days, but it may take up to two weeks before all the symptoms completely resolve
  • In adults, most symptoms of the cold usually last for a week to 10 days, although coughing may persist for a little longer. The duration of a cold in adults may also vary depending on how healthy the person is prior to the infection
  • A person with a cold starts to become contagious on the last day of the incubation period, before any symptoms even appear. They continue to be contagious until all of the symptoms are gone

A common cold is a viral infection that causes runny or stuffy nose, as well as sore throat, congestion, mild body ache, headache, sneezing, low-grade fever and a general feeling of being unwell. Although it can be very uncomfortable, it’s usually harmless in healthy individuals.1

If you’ve caught a cold, then you’re probably wondering how long it will last. The good news is that an episode of common cold generally resolves on its own after about a week or two.2

How Long Does a Cold Last in Babies?

Children are more prone to catching colds than adults due to their weaker immune systems.3 In fact, it’s normal for babies and toddlers to have up to eight colds per year. Children who attend day care may have more.4

The symptoms of a cold in babies and toddlers manifest one to three days after they’re infected. Most cases of colds in children usually go away in about five to seven days, but it may take up to two weeks before all the symptoms completely resolve.5,6

How Long Does a Cold Last in Adults?

Unlike children, adults are less susceptible to colds, as they’ve already developed the immunity for certain viruses that cause this condition.7 It’s normal for adults to get two to four colds per year, especially during the colder seasons.8 Most symptoms of the cold usually last for a week to 10 days,9 although coughing may persist for a little longer.10

The duration of a cold in adults may also vary depending on how healthy the person is prior to the infection. For instance, those who smoke are more likely to catch severe colds that can take weeks to resolve.11

What Is a Cold?

The common cold is a highly contagious infection of the upper respiratory tract that may be caused by more than 200 different viruses, with rhinovirus and coronavirus being the most common culprits.12 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, there are more than 1 million cases of colds in the U.S. per year. It’s the most common reason behind time off work and school.13

The cold virus can be transmitted from one person to another by breathing in infected droplets in the air from a sick person who is coughing, sneezing or even just talking. It can also be spread through physical contact or by touching objects that have been touched by an infected person. Some of the risk factors that can increase the susceptibility to a cold include:14,15

Age — Infants and young children are at higher risk for colds, as they have weaker immune systems than adults do.

Weakened immune system — Immunocompromised individuals are not only prone to colds, but they’re also more likely to experience serious complications.16

Season — Colds are more common in both children and adults during fall and winter months.

Smoking A study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that smokers are at a greater risk for developing colds because they have lower resistance to viral infections.17

Although generally harmless, colds are still linked to several complications, including acute ear infections, asthma, acute sinusitis and other secondary infections like strep throat, pneumonia and bronchitis.18,19

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4 Stages of a Cold

Since a cold is considered a minor disease that runs its course quickly, not all clinicians agree about the formal cold “stages.”20 But to give you a better idea on how a cold develops from Day 1 to the time it resolves, here’s how its progression can be divided into stages:21,22,23,24

Stage 1 — This stage is the incubation period, or the time between the exposure to the virus and the development of symptoms. This usually occurs one to three days after you’re infected with the cold virus. During this time, you may not have any symptoms yet.

Stage 2 — In this stage, you’ll start to feel the early signs of a cold, which is usually a sore throat followed by runny nose and congestion. You may also have clear nasal discharge.

Stage 3 — During this period, the watery discharge from your nose may become thick, and its color may turn yellow or green. You may also develop a cough due to postnasal drip.

Stage 4 — Most of your symptoms will begin to subside during this stage, as your immune system fights back against the virus. Keep in mind, though, that your cough may persist for a little longer even after your nasal symptoms are gone.

How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

A person with a cold starts to become contagious on the last day of the incubation period, before any symptoms even appear. They continue to be contagious until all of the symptoms are gone. The cold virus is more likely to spread and infect other people during the first two to three days of its onset, since this is when the symptoms are usually at their worst.25,26,27

Relieve Cold Symptoms Naturally Instead of Taking Medications

Since there are a variety of viruses that may cause the cold, there is currently no single cure that can target all strains of this infection.28 Treatment with antibiotics is also ineffective, since colds are not caused by bacteria.29

Most medications given for this illness are aimed at relieving its symptoms, but they’re usually unnecessary,30 not to mention that they may also have adverse effects.31,32 If you’re looking for ways to relieve your cold symptoms naturally, visit my article, “Natural Cold Remedies: What Works, What Doesn't.” You can also try this easy trick to reduce the duration of your cold:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Cold

Q: What can pregnant women take for a cold?

A: If you catch a cold while you’re pregnant, you can relieve your symptoms through natural remedies such as sipping on warm homemade broth, breathing in steam and spraying your nostrils with natural saline rinse. Avoid taking over-the-counter medicines for your cold, as most of them are not safe to take during your pregnancy.33

Q: What should you eat when you have a cold?

A: Eat real, organic foods and avoid processed foods to boost your health and give your body the ability to fight against viral infections. One of the best foods to eat when you have a cold is chicken soup, as it provides anti-inflammatory properties,34 plus its warmth may help soothe your nasal congestion.

You should also consume foods that have antibacterial and antiviral properties such as coconut oil, raw honey and apple cider vinegar. Foods that benefit your immune function, such as fermented vegetables, may also help fight against the cold virus.35

Q: What should you drink when you have a cold?

A: Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol and soda when you have a cold to reduce your risk of dehydration. Sipping on warm liquids like herbal teas may also help relieve your nasal congestion.36

Q: Should you stay off work when you have a cold?

A: You can still go to work if you have a mild cold, but make sure you practice proper hygiene around the workplace to avoid spreading the infection to your coworkers. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough, and avoid touching things without disinfecting your hands.

According to MedBroadcast, you should call in sick to work if your cold is accompanied by fever, body ache, sore throat and bacterial infection.37

Q: Can you sweat out a cold?

A: Sweating out a cold is the practice of utilizing things that make you sweat to help the cold go away faster. This may involve exercise, covering up in blankets, or going to a sauna. These activities may help provide temporary relief from the cold symptoms, as it exposes you to heat and physical activities, but sweating does not really “cure” a cold.38,39

Q: When should you go to the doctor for a cold?

A: Adults who have a cold should seek medical attention if they also have a fever greater than 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit, severe sore throat and headache, severe sinus pain, and shortness of breath. Those who have a weakened immune system and long-term medical conditions should also contact their physician right away if they catch a cold.

For children, immediate medical attention is needed if the cold is accompanied by a rising fever that’s lasted for more than two days, severe headache and cough, wheezing, ear pain, extreme fuzziness and lack of appetite.40,41