In the vast majority of cases, the common cold goes away on its own. Usually, no treatment is necessary, and most people recover without any complications.

Cold symptoms typically develop in a few days and last around a week before getting better. Some symptoms, such as a cough, can take longer to improve.

This article discusses whether colds go away on their own, how many days they last, and whether they have stages. It also examines signs that a cold is going away, who is at risk of complications, and when to seek help.

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Colds usually go away on their own. Typically, the immune system does not have difficulty fighting off the viruses that cause colds, and most people do not experience any complications.

There is no cure for the common cold, but over-the-counter cold products may provide temporary relief of symptoms. Examples of these drugs include acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain and fever, along with nasal decongestant sprays.

Occasionally, bacterial infections can develop after a cold, in part due to the buildup of mucus in the sinuses or ears. This can allow bacteria to grow.

A 2017 study reports that a bacterial ear infection happens in approximately 5% of colds in preschool children. Pneumonia is another possible complication of a cold, but this is not common.

The worst of a cold is typically over within 7 days, but it can take longer for some symptoms to go away completely.

Colds do not have distinct stages. The symptoms of a cold, and the progression of cold symptoms, can vary depending on the person and the virus they have.

In general, though, colds tend to follow this timeline:

First 2–3 days

This is when symptoms develop and peak. The symptoms may include:

  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • coughing
  • stuffy nose
  • watery eyes
  • sore throat
  • production of clear mucus
  • mucus dripping down throat, which is known as postnasal drip
  • fever, which only occurs sometimes

After 2–3 days

Some symptoms may start to show signs of improvement after they peak. The mucus in the nose may change from clear to yellow, white, or green. This is typical.

After 7 days

Most symptoms will improve by this time, but some symptoms, such as a cough, could last longer. Coughs may last up to 3 weeks following a cold.

A reduction in symptoms means a cold is starting to go away. A person may feel less congested, no longer have a sore throat, or feel less tired, for example.

Another sign the cold may be going away is if a person feels like resuming their usual activities or no longer notices their symptoms.

However, it is worth remembering that some symptoms may linger for a while. As long as most symptoms are improving, this is a good sign.

The viruses that cause colds rarely become serious on their own. When people become very unwell due to a cold, it can be because they have developed a secondary infection. Alternatively, there may be another explanation for the symptoms.

Cold symptoms that get worse, or get better and then worsen again, may indicate that a person has a bacterial infection. Some potential symptoms of a secondary bacterial infection include:

  • fever
  • pressure or pain in the sinuses
  • pain in one or both ears
  • swollen tonsils
  • white or red spots on the tonsils or in the mouth
  • difficulty swallowing
  • conjunctivitis, which is inflammation of part of the eye

The body can sometimes fight a minor bacterial infection on its own, so even if a person develops these symptoms, it is not necessarily serious.

A more serious but rare complication of a cold is pneumonia, which is a lung infection. This can cause:

  • a high fever
  • chills
  • sharp or stabbing pain in the chest
  • coughing up mucus, which may have blood in it
  • breathlessness
  • severe tiredness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • increased heart rate
  • faster breathing

Another possible cause for what appears to be a severe cold is that a person has another type of condition. For example, they may have influenza (flu), mononucleosis, or COVID-19. These illnesses can be worse than a typical cold, but initially, they may appear to have similar symptoms.

Learn the differences between colds, flu, and COVID-19.

Certain groups are at a higher risk of cold complications than others. These include people who:

  • smoke
  • are older than age 65
  • have compromised immune systems
  • have respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • have other underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or cystic fibrosis
  • have malnutrition
  • have alcohol use disorder

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children under age 5, all adults over 65, and those with certain risk factors for pneumonia receive a vaccination. People can speak with a doctor or pharmacist about this.

Any person who may have COVID-19 rather than a cold should stay at home and seek testing. Their local authority may have information on how to get tested.

People with compromised immune systems, such as those undergoing cancer treatment, should also let their doctor know if they contract a virus.

Otherwise, most people with colds do not need treatment. A person should seek medical care if they have:

  • difficulty breathing
  • rapid breathing
  • a fever that lingers longer than 4 days
  • symptoms that get better and then return or worsen
  • dehydration
  • symptoms that linger longer than 10 days without improving
  • a long-term medical condition that has gotten worse

This list does not include all the possible signs a person needs treatment. So if someone has any concerning symptoms, they should speak with a doctor.

In most cases, colds get better on their own. The worst of the symptoms are usually over within 7 days, peaking within 2–3 days. Some people may experience some lingering symptoms, such as a cough, for up to 3 weeks.

Although most people with colds do not require treatment, some people can develop complications, such as a secondary infection. Rarely, colds can lead to pneumonia.

If a person has any symptoms they are concerned about, such as a high fever or breathlessness, or they are in a high risk group for complications, they should speak with a doctor.