Lifecycle of the Common Cold: How Long Does It Last?

Stages of the Common Cold

The common cold, also called an upper respiratory infection (URI), is not caused by a single virus. Rather, hundreds of different viruses could be the potential cause of your symptoms.

The most common virus responsible is called rhinovirus. Other common culprits are respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, adenovirus, common human coronaviruses, and human metapneumovirus.

Woman at home with a cold

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You catch a cold when you come in contact with an infected individual and they cough or sneeze on you. You can also get it if an infected person coughs or sneezes on a surface. You may then touch the surface and inadvertently touch your eyes or mouth.

Some cold viruses can even be spread through fecal matter if an infected person doesn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. Most adults get a couple colds each year, and young children are even more prone to common colds.

Regardless of which virus is causing your cold, it also produces a pretty common set of symptoms. These include congestion, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and occasionally fever.

Lifecycle of a Cold

The average cold lasts seven to 10 days. It’s worth noting, however, that how long it takes you to recover and the exact course of your cold depends on several factors. These include the health of your immune system, the cold virus you have been infected with, and how you care for yourself while sick.

Incubation Period

The incubation period is the amount of time between when you are infected with the virus until your first symptoms appear. With most cold viruses, and rhinovirus in particular, this period of time is quite short.

When symptoms appear depends in part on the specific virus causing your cold. Rhinoviruses can produce symptoms from 12 to 72 hours after infection, but commonly do so in 24 to 48 hours. Some other viruses take longer, as much as 5.5 days for adenovirus.

Stage 1

Stage 1 lasts for approximately the first one to three days of your cold. The first symptoms to appear after the incubation period are usually irritation in the throat (such as a scratchy sensation in the back of the throat), followed by a sore throat. You may feel more tired than usual.

Another early symptom is sneezing. During the first stage of a cold, you may also experience a watery nasal discharge.

As soon as symptoms appear, you are contagious and capable of spreading the virus to others around you. Depending on which virus is responsible for your symptoms, they may get progressively worse, peaking at the end of stage 1 or the beginning of stage 2.

Research indicates that zinc supplements, especially if started within the first 24 hours of symptom onset, may reduce the severity of symptoms and decrease the length of time you are sick. Over-the-counter (OTC) zinc lozenges are an option.

It is also a good idea to increase your fluid intake as soon as you notice symptoms. Implement measures such as staying at home and good hand hygiene to prevent spreading your illness to others.

Stage 2

Stage 2 comprises days four through seven of your cold. Many people find that their symptoms get worse and peak during stage 2.

It is not uncommon for your sore throat to disappear quickly after it starts. You may develop a fever, but this is more common in children than adults and rare with rhinovirus infections.

Your nasal discharge may become thicker and change colors. If not controlled, severe congestion can lead to complications of the common cold, such as middle ear infections or sinus infections. Pneumonia is another complication of the common cold that can occur.

OTC medications such as acetaminophen are useful in controlling a fever, but you should contact a healthcare professional if you are running a high temperature (greater than 101 degrees F).

You should also contact a healthcare professional if you suspect an ear infection or sinus infection, since these can be secondary bacterial infections that require antibiotics.

Decongestants or OTC cough and cold remedies may be useful in easing symptoms for adults, but research suggests that they may not be beneficial for children. For this reason, consult your pediatrician before giving them to your child. Increasing your fluid intake and using a cool-mist humidifier can also ease congestion.

You can still pass your cold virus on to others as long as you are experiencing symptoms. To avoid spreading illness, stay at home, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and wash your hands frequently.

Stage 3

Stage 3 is from the seventh day of your cold until the resolution of your symptoms. You may feel back to normal after the seventh day, but some symptoms may last as long as three weeks.

The total length of illness is highly variable, depending on the virus, your underlying health condition, and your immune response. Regardless, your symptoms should gradually improve until they eventually resolve.

A minority of people who recover from a cold virus can develop what is called postinfectious cough. This is a persistent cough that lasts longer than three weeks and up to eight weeks following an upper respiratory virus infection.

The process that causes postinfectious cough is not completely understood. It is thought to be associated with excessive inflammation and mucus production during your cold. Sometimes Bordetella pertussis infection is responsible for postinfectious cough.

People with postinfectious cough are not typically contagious as long as their other symptoms have subsided, but your healthcare professional should check out a persistent cough to rule out another complication of cold viruses—pneumonia.

Summary

The common cold lasts from seven to 10 days as it goes through three stages. The incubation period of one to a few days is followed by the first stage with the onset of symptoms.

In the second stage, from the fourth to the seventh day, the symptoms worsen and peak. The third stage follows day seven, with a resolution of the symptoms, although some may linger for up to three weeks.

A Word From Verywell

Cold viruses and other respiratory infections are among the most common illnesses experienced. You may reduce the number of colds you get by practicing good hygiene, such as frequent handwashing and not sharing food or drinks with other people.

You can keep your immune system healthy by exercising, getting plenty of sleep, and eating a healthy and balanced diet. Reducing stress is another great way to improve immunity.

If you are unfortunate enough to develop a cold, taking care of yourself is key to a swift recovery. Drink plenty of fluids, rest, and consult a healthcare professional if needed.

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Article Sources
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