The cold is a common type of viral infection in the upper airways. Everyone gets a cold from time to time. It usually causes familiar symptoms in the nose, sinuses, and throat.
Most colds do not last very long. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that most people recover from a cold within around 7–10 days.
In many cases, the body gets rid of an infection without the need for medical treatment. There are several ways to help manage troubling symptoms, however.
In this article, learn more about how long a cold lasts, what to expect during recovery, and when to see a doctor.
The typical common cold lasts about 7–10 days, on average. However, this may differ depending on the individual.
Some people only have symptoms for a couple of days, whereas others may regularly experience cold symptoms for 2 weeks at a time. Everyone’s immune system is different.
Lifestyle factors, such as whether a person gets enough rest or whether they smoke cigarettes, can also help speed up or slow down recovery.
Even after the virus is out of the body, some symptoms may linger. For example, stubborn mucus or a cough may last for another week or more after the infection clears up.
Symptoms may last longer in some children. In most cases, however, they will still last only 7–10 days. Children may have a more difficult time with symptoms, as it can be hard for them to identify the cause of their symptoms or deal with them on their own.
Children are more likely to catch colds. Children’s immune systems have not built up immunity against as many viruses as a fully grown adult’s immune system has.
Children also have a higher risk of colds because they are less aware of prevention habits, such as sneezing into their elbow or regularly washing their hands.
Being in close contact with others, such as while attending preschool, also increases the risk of acquiring a cold.
Symptoms of the cold do not show up immediately after a person contracts a virus. This is the virus’s incubation period.
The incubation period for the common cold is about 1–3 days. During this time, the person may pass the virus on to someone else, even if they are not showing symptoms.
Strictly speaking, any time a person has symptoms of a cold, they can pass it on to another person. However, the person may be most contagious from a day before symptoms start and for the initial 5 days of being sick.
The cold commonly spreads through droplets or vapor when a sick person coughs, sneezes, or blows their nose. Their mucus and saliva can pass through the airways of another person and start an infection there.
The cold virus can live outside the body for a few hours, which means that a person may pass a cold on to others by sharing objects such as face cloths, dishes, or cutlery.
Common colds are the main reason for absences from school and work.
If symptoms of a cold either do not clear up or get worse after 10 days, it is best to see a doctor.
A doctor can also help treat severe or unusual symptoms.
Anyone in these groups who experiences flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, and body aches, should see a doctor.
There is no cure for the common cold, and the body can usually fight off the infection without the need for medical treatment.
A cold is a viral infection, so antibiotics will have no effect. Do not take antibiotics for a cold. As the CDC note, not only will the antibiotics not help treat viral infections, they may even cause harm in both children and adults by making it harder for the body to fight off future bacterial infections.
However, cold symptoms can be annoying and disruptive. There are many simple ways to manage these symptoms as the body clears up the underlying infection, including:
Drinking plenty of fluids: Drink plenty of water and other clear liquids to help keep the cells healthy and flush out toxins.
Resting: Getting lots of rest can help the body focus on fighting off the infection.
Taking over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications: Many OTC medications can help relieve specific symptoms of a cold, such as a stuffy or runny nose. Always follow the directions and speak to a doctor before giving children OTC medications.
Taking pain relievers: OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), may help reduce some symptoms.
Drinking warm liquids: Sipping warm liquids, such as herbal teas or soup, may help soothe a scratchy, sore throat. It may also help break up mucus and ease congestion.
Gargling salt water: Gargling warm salt water may also help relieve the itching and pain of a sore throat. Avoid asking young children to try this, as they may not be able to gargle.
Using a humidifier: A vaporizer or humidifier can add moisture to the air, helping relieve congestion and making it easier to cough up mucus.
The cold is very common. Although it is hard to prevent, it should not last very long either. Most colds will clear up in 7–10 days, with only mild lingering symptoms for a few days afterward.
Helping the body fight off the cold is the best solution in most cases. Taking certain OTC drugs or trying home remedies may help a person manage their symptoms.
Anyone who notices long-lasting, severe, or worsening symptoms should contact their doctor.