How Long Does a Cold Last?

Cold Treatment

Story at-a-glance -

  • Colds are the most common infectious diseases shared by Americans and are triggered by hundreds of different viruses, rather than bacteria; colds are usually spread by hand-to-hand contact between people, or by touching objects that harbor the opportunistic pathogens, more than by coughing or sneezing
  • Since colds are viral in nature, antibiotics are of absolutely no value and should be avoided unless your physician diagnoses a serious secondary bacterial infection; antibiotics overuse contributes to the problem of drug-resistant bacterial infections
  • The key to preventing colds and recovering from them quickly is to maintain a strong immune system, which means getting enough sleep and exercise, optimizing your diet, avoiding sugar, managing your stress, practicing good hand washing technique, and maintaining an adequate vitamin D level
  • Vitamin D is a potent antimicrobial agent, producing 200 to 300 different antimicrobial peptides in your body that kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Suboptimal vitamin D levels will significantly impair your immune response and make you far more susceptible to contracting colds, influenza, and other respiratory infections
  • Besides vitamin D, a few other natural supplements may be helpful if you catch a cold; my favorites are outlined

By Dr. Mercola

Each year Americans catch more than one billion colds, making the cold virus the most common infectious disease in the United States. It's estimated that the average U.S. adult typically has two to four colds each year, while children may have up to 12. Colds account for more school absences and missed work than any other illness and are the number one reason people visit their physicians -- even though most physicians have little to offer in the form of treatment.

It's a widespread misconception that colds are caused by bacteria. Colds are actually triggered by viruses, which means if your physician prescribes you an antibiotic, it will be absolutely useless. More on this shortly, but before I delve into simple prevention and treatment strategies, it's important you know how colds are contracted in the first place.

How Do You Catch a Cold?

The most common way cold viruses are spread is not from being around coughing or sneezing, or walking barefoot in the rain, but rather from hand-to-hand contact. For instance, someone with a cold blows their nose then shakes your hand or touches surfaces that you also touch. Cold viruses can live on pens, computer keyboards, coffee mugs, and other objects for hours, so it's easy to come into contact with such viruses during daily life.

However, the key to remember is that just being exposed to a cold virus does not have to mean that you'll catch a cold. If your immune system is operating at its peak, it should actually be quite easy for you to fend off the virus without ever getting sick. On the other hand, if your immune system is impaired, it's akin to having an open-door policy for viruses—they'll easily take hold in your body. So the simple and short answer is, you catch a cold due to a poorly functioning immune system. There are many causes of a weakened immune system, but the more common factors are:

  1. Eating too much sugar and too many grains
  2. Not getting enough rest
  3. Ineffectively managing emotional stresses in your daily life
  4. Vitamin D deficiency, as discussed below
  5. Any combination of the above

Vitamin D Deficiency: Another Reason You May 'Catch' a Cold

Research has confirmed that "catching" colds and flu may actually be a symptom of an underlying vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is a potent antimicrobial agent, producing 200 to 300 different antimicrobial peptides in your body that kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Suboptimal vitamin D levels will significantly impair your immune response and make you far more susceptible to contracting colds, influenza, and other respiratory infections.

In the largest and most nationally represented study of its kind to date, involving about 19,000 Americans, people with the lowest vitamin D levels reported having significantly more recent colds or cases of the flu -- and the risk was even greater for those with chronic respiratory disorders like asthma. At least five additional studies also show an inverse association between lower respiratory tract infections and vitamin D levels.

The best source for vitamin D is direct sun exposure. Even though for many of us, this just isn't practical during the winter, every effort should be made to attain vitamin D from UVB exposure as there are many additional benefits from this route other than vitamin D. The next best option to sunlight is the use of a safe indoor tanning device. If neither natural nor artificial sunlight is an option, then using an oral vitamin D3 supplement is acceptable—just beware that mounting evidence suggests supplements cannot compare to sun exposure, as UV radiation provides a number of health benefits you cannot get from a supplement.

Based on the latest research, many experts now agree you need about 35 IU's of vitamin D per pound of body weight. This recommendation also includes children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

However, keep in mind that vitamin D requirements are highly individual, as your vitamin D status is dependent on numerous factors, such as the color of your skin, your location, and how much sunshine you're exposed to on a regular basis. So, although these recommendations may put you closer to the range of what most people likely need, it is simply impossible to make a blanket recommendation that will cover everyone's needs.

The only way to determine your optimal dose is to get your blood tested. Ideally, you'll want to maintain a vitamin D level of 50-70 ng/ml year-round.

For an in-depth explanation of everything you need to know about determining your ideal vitamin D level, please review my recommendations about vitamin D testing. I strongly recommend that you also listen to my free one-hour vitamin D lecture, which covers in detail the importance of vitamin D to your overall health. The research is very clear. The higher your vitamin D level, the lower your risk of contracting colds, flu, and other respiratory tract infections.

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How Long Do Colds Last … and How Can You Make Your Cold Go Away Faster?

Most uncomplicated colds last between eight and nine days, but about 25 percent last two weeks, and five to 10 percent last three weeks. Even the most stubborn colds will typically resolve in a few weeks' time; this is actually one of the ways you can distinguish a cold from allergies. A cold will last, at most, a few weeks, but allergy symptoms can last all season.

How quickly you bounce back is typically defined by you and your collective lifestyle habits -- and this does not mean popping over-the-counter cough and cold remedies or fever reducers. In fact, as long as your temperature remains below 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius) there is no need to lower it. Cold viruses do not reproduce at higher body temperatures, so a slight fever should help you get rid of the virus quicker and help you to feel better much sooner.

You should avoid taking over-the-counter pain-relief medications as well, as a study showed that people who take aspirin and Tylenol (acetaminophen) suppress their body's ability to produce antibodies to destroy the cold virus. Aspirin has even been linked to lung complications including pulmonary edema, an abnormal buildup of fluid in your lungs, when taken in excess. You should use these medications only when absolutely necessary, such as if you have a temperature greater than 105 degrees F (40.5 degrees C), severe muscle aches or weakness.

Hydrogen Peroxide: A Simple Trick to Beat a Cold

I don't advise over-the-counter medications, but one simple treatment you can try that is surprisingly effective against upper respiratory infections is hydrogen peroxide. Many patients at my Natural Health Center have had remarkable results in curing colds and flu within 12 to 14 hours when administering a few drops of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) into each ear. You will hear some bubbling, which is completely normal, and possibly feel a slight stinging sensation. Wait until the bubbling and stinging subside (usually 5 to 10 minutes), then drain onto a tissue and repeat with the other ear. A bottle of hydrogen peroxide in 3 percent solution is available at any drug store for a couple of dollars or less. It is simply amazing how many people respond to this simple, inexpensive treatment.

Dietary Strategies to Kick a Cold

If you feel yourself coming down with a cold or flu, this is NOT the time to be eating ANY sugar, artificial sweeteners, or processed foods. Sugar is particularly damaging to your immune system -- which needs to be ramped up, not suppressed, in order to combat an emerging infection. So, if you are fighting a cold, you'll want to avoid all sugar like the plague, and this includes sugar in the form of fruit juice and even grains (which break down as sugar in your body).

Ideally, you must address nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress the moment you first feel yourself getting a bug. This is when immune-enhancing strategies will be most effective. When you're coming down with a cold, it's time to address ALL of the contributing factors immediately, which includes tweaking your diet in favor of foods that will strengthen your immune response. Those factors are outlined in the table that follows.

Raw, grass-fed organic milk, and/or high-quality whey protein Fermented foods such as raw kefir, kimchee, miso, pickles, sauerkraut, etc., which are rich in probiotics, or good bacteria. Scientific research shows that 80 percent of your immune system resides inside your digestive tract, so eating probiotic-rich foods or taking a high-quality probiotic will help support your immune health.
Raw, organic eggs from free-ranging, preferably local, chickens Grass-fed beef
Coconuts and coconut oil Animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil
Locally grown fruits and vegetables, appropriate for your nutritional type Mushrooms, especially Reishi, Shiitake, and Maitake, which contain beta glucans (which have immune-enhancing properties)
Garlic, a potent antimicrobial that kills bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Ideally this should be in fresh form, eaten raw and crushed with a spoon just before eating. Herbs and spices with high ORAC scores: Turmeric, oregano, cinnamon, and cloves.
Make sure you are drinking plenty of fresh, pure water. Water is essential for the optimal function of every system in your body, and will help with nose stuffiness and loosening secretions. You should drink enough water so that your urine is a light, pale yellow. Chicken Soup. Yes, it does work! Chicken contains a natural amino acid called cysteine, which can thin the mucus in your lungs and make it less sticky so you can expel it more easily. Processed, canned soups won't work as well as the homemade version, however. For best results, make up a fresh batch yourself (or ask a friend or family member to do so) and make the soup hot and spicy with plenty of pepper. The spices will trigger a sudden release of watery fluids in your mouth, throat, and lungs, which will help thin down the respiratory mucus so it's easier to cough up and expel.

Three Cold-Busting Lifestyle Strategies

Vitamin D, check! Hydrogen peroxide, check! Healthy diet, check! We've covered several of the primary "weapons" you should have in your cold-fighting arsenal, but there are others, too.

  1. High-Quality Sleep and Plenty of It: Pay attention to how you are sleeping. If you aren't getting enough sleep, or enough restorative sleep, you'll be at increased risk for a hostile viral takeover. Your immune system is strongest when you're not sleep-deprived.
  2. Regular Exercise: Regular exercise is a crucial strategy for increasing your resistance to illness. There is evidence that regular, moderate exercise can reduce your risk for respiratory illness by boosting your immune system. In fact, one study found that people who exercised regularly (five or more days a week) cut their risk of having a cold by close to 50 percent. And, in the event they did catch a cold, their symptoms were much less severe than among those who did not exercise.
  3. Exercise likely cuts your risk of colds so significantly because it triggers a rise in immune system cells that attack potential invaders. Each time you exercise you can benefit from this boost to your immune system. Ideally, establish a regular fitness program (such as Peak Fitness) now, to help you ward off colds and other illness.

    However, if you're already feeling sick, don't overdo it. Over-exercising can actually place more stress on your body, which can suppress your immune system -- and you don't want that either. You might just go for a walk if you are coming down with a cold, or simply tone down your regular workout. Any rise in body temperature will be an unwelcome climate for a viral invader though, so some exercise is likely to be beneficial.

  4. Address Your Emotional Stress: Emotional stressors can also predispose you to an infection while making cold symptoms worse. Finding ways to manage daily stress will contribute to a strong and resilient immune system. My favorite stress buster is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), a system that helps balance your body's subtle energies and repair emotional "short-circuits." EFT may even help you overcome cold symptoms.

Supplements That Send Pathogens Packin'

Supplements can be beneficial for colds, but they should be used only as an adjunct to the lifestyle measures already discussed. Some of the more helpful options for cold (and flu) -- above and beyond vitamin D – are listed in the following table.

Zinc: When taken within the one day of the first cold symptoms, zinc can reduce the duration of your cold by about 24 hours and reduce the severity of your symptoms, according to a Cochrane Review of 15 clinical trials Vitamin C: A very potent antioxidant; use a natural form such as acerola, which contains associated micronutrients. You can take several grams every hour till you are better, unless you start developing loose stools.
Oregano Oil: The higher the carvacrol concentration, the more effective it is. Carvacrol is the most active antimicrobial agent in oregano oil. Propolis: A bee resin and one of the most broad-spectrum antimicrobial compounds in the world; propolis is also the richest source of caffeic acid and apigenin, two very important compounds that aid in immune response and even fight cancer.
A tea made from a combination of elderflower, yarrow, boneset, linden, peppermint and ginger: drink it hot and often for combating a cold or flu. It causes you to sweat, which is helpful for eradicating the virus from your system. Olive leaf extract: Ancient Egyptians and Mediterranean cultures used it for a variety of health purposes, and it is widely known as a natural, non-toxic immune system builder.

Remember This Tip: Wash Your Hands Sensibly

Washing your hands frequently is one of the easiest ways to wipe out germs and viruses and reduce your chances of becoming sick. Thorough hand washing truly is an important preventative measure, as you are at far greater risk of passing on an infection by shaking someone's hand than by sharing a kiss. One report found that regular hand washing may be even more effective than drugs in preventing the spread of respiratory viruses, such as influenza.

When you wash up, plain soap and water will do. Do not make the mistake of using antibacterial cleansers, as their widespread use is leading to strains of resistant bacteria or "superbugs," which cause the ingredients to lose effectiveness for the times when they really are needed, such as for surgeons prior to surgery. Furthermore, the active ingredient in most antibacterial products is triclosan, an antibacterial agent that kills bacteria and inhibits bacterial growth. Not only does triclosan kill bacteria, it's also been shown to kill human cells.

Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps. And one study found people who used antibacterial soaps and cleansers developed cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms just as often as people who used products that did not contain antibacterial ingredients. So, there is absolutely no reason to use antibacterial soap when plain soap is safer, and just as effective

Too Much Hand-Washing Can Backfire

There is another important caveat to remember. Your skin—not the soap—is actually your primary defense against bacteria. Resist the urge to become obsessive about washing your hands. If you wash them too frequently, you can actually extract many of your skin's protective oils, causing your skin to crack and bleed. It is rare for a germ on your skin to cause a problem -- it is typically only an issue when you transfer that to your nose, mouth, or an open wound, like cracked skin. Therefore, excessive hand washing can actually be counterproductive by providing potentially dangerous pathogens an entry into your body.

Avoid the Antibiotics!

More than 300 different viruses can cause colds, so each time you have a cold it is caused by a distinct virus (i.e. adenovirus, rhinovirus, parainfluenza virus, coronavirus). A virus is much smaller than a bacteria; it is a tiny cluster of genetic material surrounded by a protein wrapper.

There are currently NO drugs available that can kill these viruses. Antibiotics, including penicillin, do not have any effect on viruses, but unfortunately have been vastly over-prescribed for this very (useless) purpose. That, coupled with the excessive use of antibiotics in livestock, has contributed to a steep rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases. Antibiotic-resistant infections now claim more lives each year than the "modern plague" of AIDS and cost the American health care system some $20 billion a year!

Furthermore, according to one meta-analysis, the health risk from overuse of antibiotics is also a very personal one, as opposed to simply raising the occurrence of antibiotic resistance in the general population over time. Whenever you use an antibiotic, you're increasing your susceptibility to an antibiotic-resistant infection -- and you can become the carrier of this resistant bug and spread it to others.

When Should You Call Your Physician?

Sinus, ear, and lung infections (bronchitis and pneumonia) CAN be bacterial, and if so, may respond to antibiotics. If you develop any of the following symptoms, these are signs you may be suffering from a bacterial infection rather than a cold, and you should call your physician's office:

  • Fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius)
  • Ear pain
  • Pain around your eyes, especially with a green nasal discharge
  • Shortness of breath or a persistent uncontrollable cough
  • Persistently coughing up green and yellow sputum

Generally speaking, however, if you have a cold, medical care is not necessary. Rest and attention to the lifestyle factors noted above will help you to recover quickly and, if you stick to them, will significantly reduce your chances of catching another one anytime soon.