The common cold usually has several recognizable stages. Symptoms such as congestion and fatigue typically peak 2–3 days after infection and gradually get better after 7–10 days.

Being able to recognize the stage of the cold can also help people know how best to treat the symptoms during each stage, and how long to expect a cold to last for.

Keep reading to learn more about the stages of cold symptoms in children and adults, treatment options, and when to see a doctor.

a woman experiencing a runny nose because of the early stages of a cold Share on Pinterest
In the early stages of a cold, a person may experience a runny nose and fatigue.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people usually recover from a common cold within 7–10 days.

Symptoms of a cold usually appear gradually, reach a peak, and then progressively fade away again.

The sections below provide more detail on each stage of the common cold.

Stage 1

One of the first stages of a cold is usually a sore throat. People might also experience:

  • tiredness
  • fatigue
  • a slightly runny or stuffy nose, which produces clear mucus

Symptoms are usually mild during the first stage of a cold, before peaking over the following few days.

Stage 2

Symptoms can increase and worsen during the second stage of a cold. People may experience:

  • a runny nose
  • congestion
  • mild aches
  • sneezing
  • a sore throat
  • tiredness
  • fatigue
  • cough

This is the peak stage of a cold. It usually occurs within 2–3 days of experiencing the first cold symptoms. People may also notice mucus from the nose turning white, green, or yellow during this stage.

Stage 3

Within 7–10 days, people will usually start to recover from a cold. Symptoms begin to ease up, and people will start feeling better. People may also find that they have more energy and are more able to carry out tasks as usual.

Certain symptoms can last slightly longer, for up to 14 days, though they should keep improving within that time. These longer lasting symptoms may include:

  • a runny nose
  • a stuffy nose
  • cough

Babies and toddlers may experience slightly different cold symptoms. Babies may have the following symptoms:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • fussiness
  • a congested nose
  • vomiting and diarrhea
  • a fever

For toddlers or older children, the symptoms may be similar to those in adults. However, they may also experience:

  • watery eyes
  • headaches
  • low-grade fever
  • chills
  • extreme tiredness
  • a tickly throat

Getting plenty of rest can help the body recover from a cold more quickly. People can also try the following to help their body fight off a cold and relieve the symptoms:

  • drink plenty of fluids
  • drink hot water with honey and lemon to help soothe a sore throat or cough
  • suck on throat lozenges to soothe the throat
  • take a cough medicine to help with a tickly cough
  • use a humidifier
  • use a saline nasal spray or nasal drops to help clear congestion

People may also find that inhaling steam from a bowl of water can help clear the sinuses. Adding menthol drops and covering the head with a towel may help make this more effective.

Learn more about effective cold remedies here.

People may also find that over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help relieve symptoms. These medications may include:

  • ibuprofen for pain relief
  • cough medicines
  • medications formulated specifically for relieving cold symptoms

Parents and caregivers should always check a medication to ensure that it is suitable for children or infants, and they should always follow the dosage instructions. A pharmacist may be able to advise on which medication is best for young children.

Treatment for young children

The CDC provide the following advice about cold treatments for children of certain ages:

  • Avoid giving lozenges to children under 4 years old.
  • Avoid giving honey to infants under the age of 1.
  • Children older than 6 months of age can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • For children under 6 months old, only acetaminophen is suitable.
  • Avoid giving aspirin to children, as it can cause a rare illness called Reye’s syndrome.
  • Unless following the advice of a doctor, avoid giving cough or cold medicine to children under the age of 4 due to the potential risk of side effects.
  • For children over the age of 4, check with a doctor or pharmacist that specific cough or cold medicines are safe to use.

People will not usually need to see their doctor if they have a common cold.

Most people will be able to relieve the symptoms using home remedies. The body will often be able to fight off a cold by itself within 7–10 days.

However, a person should see their doctor if they have a cold and also experience any of the following:

  • rapid or difficulty breathing
  • fever for longer than 4 days
  • symptoms that last for longer than 10 days with no improvement
  • symptoms that go and come back worse
  • any existing medical conditions worsen
  • dehydration
  • any severe or unusual symptoms

A child should see a doctor if they experience any of the following:

If a person is experiencing any of the following symptoms, it may be a sign of the flu rather than the common cold:

  • fever
  • chills
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • chest discomfort and cough

Flu symptoms tend to develop far more suddenly than cold symptoms.

If people at risk of flu complications notice any symptoms of it, they should see their doctor immediately. According to the CDC, at risk groups include:

  • pregnant women
  • adults aged 65 years and over
  • children under 5 years
  • people with chronic health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, and heart disease

A common cold will usually last for around 7–10 days. The first symptom of a cold is usually a sore throat, followed by congestion, sneezing, and coughing. People will usually have low energy levels, and they may have mild aches.

Symptoms usually peak within the first few days before gradually improving. If a person has cold symptoms for longer than 10 days, with no improvement, they should see their doctor.

A person should also see their doctor for any severe or unusual symptoms. If a child has a fever or any flu-like symptoms, they need to see their doctor.