The typical incubation period for a cold is 2–3 days. A sore throat or runny nose are common early signs. Other symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing, may also develop.

Colds usually resolve within 7–10 days. While there is no cure for the common cold, rest and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can ease symptoms.

This article looks at the incubation period for a cold, how long colds last, and how long a person may remain contagious. We also look at how to manage symptoms while helping prevent transmission.

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The incubation period for cold symptoms is usually 2–3 days after an individual is exposed to the virus.

Rhinoviruses cause most colds. However, upper respiratory symptoms, such as a cough, can also be signs of COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can take anywhere between 2 days to 2 weeks for people to show symptoms of COVID-19.

If COVID-19 could be a possibility, follow local public health guidelines for getting tested, and stay at home unless otherwise instructed.

The CDC state that the first symptoms of a cold are usually a sore throat and runny nose. Other symptoms include:

The infographic below shows the similarities and differences between the symptoms of a cold versus influenza — also known as flu — and COVID-19:

According to the CDC, it takes most people 7–10 days to recover from a cold. Some symptoms may linger for a few days longer in some individuals. However, most people do not need medical treatment for this condition.

Some can develop infections following a cold, such as sinusitis or an ear infection, which can extend the period of illness. However, doctors can diagnose and treat these secondary conditions with antibiotics.

In rare cases, a person who is vulnerable to complications from colds can develop conditions such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

There is no cure for the common cold. However, the following practices can help a person feel better and promote recovery:

  • resting
  • drinking enough fluids
  • taking OTC cold medications

Speak with a pharmacist to ensure that cold medications and remedies are safe to take before trying them. Some are not suitable for children.

It is also important to let a pharmacist know of any health conditions a person has, especially diabetes or high blood pressure, as certain OTC medications can worsen these conditions.

There are numerous cold remedies that people believe can treat cold symptoms, although many do not have scientific research supporting them. However, there is some evidence that honey and zinc may help to a small degree.

A 2014 review notes that in one study, children over 12 months slept better and coughed slightly less when they took a dose of honey before bedtime. People can also add the substance to a hot drink to soothe the throat. However, do not give honey to children under the age of 12 months.

The same review also found some evidence that taking zinc may reduce the frequency of colds during the winter. However, they also found a high risk of bias, so this may not be a reliable result.

People cannot use antibiotics to treat colds because viruses cause colds, not bacteria. Additionally, there is no strong evidence that vitamin C, echinacea, or garlic will shorten the duration of a cold.

Once people contract a virus that causes the common cold, they can begin transmitting it to others, even if they are not experiencing symptoms yet. This means a person can pass on cold viruses up to 2–3 days before they show signs of a cold.

After symptoms develop, people remain contagious for as long as they have them. This can mean they are able to spread the cold virus for up to around 2 weeks.

The common cold spreads when people come in contact with the viruses that cause it. This may happen when a person touches surfaces that have the virus on them. If they then touch the nose, mouth, or eyes, the virus can get inside the body.

People can also acquire respiratory viruses by inhaling droplets that come from coughs and sneezes.

While most individuals experience mild symptoms during a cold, some are vulnerable to complications. For this reason, it is important to take steps to prevent transmission. The CDC advise:

  • staying at home if sick, wherever possible
  • keeping children at home if they are sick
  • avoiding close contact with people who have colds
  • using tissues or the inside of the elbow to catch coughs and sneezes
  • disposing of tissues safely
  • washing the hands frequently for 20 seconds with soap and water, particularly after coughing or sneezing
  • avoiding touching the face
  • disinfecting surfaces people often touch, such as doorknobs and light switches

Additional precautions are necessary if COVID-19 could be causing symptoms. If someone tests positive for the disease, the CDC recommend:

  • self-isolating in a specific room of the house, as much as possible
  • using a separate bathroom if possible
  • avoiding sharing personal items, such as towels
  • washing the hands immediately after:
    • coughing
    • sneezing
    • using the bathroom
    • before preparing or eating food
  • staying 6 feet away from other household members
  • wearing a mask that covers the nose and mouth, unless living alone
  • cleaning and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces daily
  • thoroughly cleaning items, such as plates and cutlery, after use
  • telling close contacts about the test result, as they may need testing

Most people do not need to seek medical attention when they have a cold. However, sometimes they can experience complications that require treatment.

Seek emergency help for the following symptoms:

  • difficulty breathing
  • rapid breathing
  • in children, a high fever of 100.4 °F (38 °C) or more
  • signs of dehydration, such as:
    • dry mouth
    • headache
    • in children, crying with no tears

A person should also seek help as soon as they can for any of the following symptoms:

  • a fever that lasts for more than 4 days
  • cold symptoms that do not get better after 10 days
  • symptoms that get better and then get worse again

These symptoms may indicate a person has contracted a bacterial infection.

If someone could have COVID-19, follow local procedures for getting tested, and remain at home unless a healthcare professional instructs otherwise. Do not visit a healthcare facility without calling ahead first.

The incubation period for a cold is typically 2–3 days. The early symptoms include a sore throat, runny nose, or cough.

Most people recover from colds without needing to see a doctor for treatment. However, because the condition bears similarities with COVID-19, it is important to seek guidance on whether testing is necessary. Take precautions to avoid spreading viruses to others.