How Long Do Colds Last?

Learn about the stages of a cold

The common cold can last for about a week for most people. How long it lasts may depend on the virus causing it.

A cold, also called an upper respiratory infection (URI), is not caused by a single virus. There are hundreds of different viruses that can cause cold symptoms. The most common is rhinovirus, but it can also be caused by respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, adenovirus, common human coronaviruses, and human metapneumovirus.

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Regardless of the virus that's making you sick, you can expect to have typical cold symptoms such as congestion, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and maybe a mild fever. These symptoms can appear at different stages of a cold.

If you've caught a cold and are wondering how long it will last, read on to learn more about the life cycle of a cold.

How Long Does a Cold Last?

The average cold lasts seven to 10 days. However, your recovery time and the overall 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.

Age can affect how long a cold lasts. Older people and people with chronic health conditions may have colds that last longer and are more severe than younger, overall healthier people who are more likely to quickly “bounce back” from a cold or flu.

Life Cycle of a Cold

The typical cold usually goes through four stages during its life cycle. It starts when you get the virus and ends when you fully recover.

Incubation Period of a Cold

The incubation period is the time between when you are infected with the virus and when you get the first symptoms of a cold. With most cold viruses—but rhinovirus in particular—the incubation time is quite short.

When cold symptoms appear depends in part on the virus that's 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 cold viruses take longer—for example, up to 5.5 days for adenovirus.

Stage 1 of a Cold: First Signs and Symptoms

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

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

As soon as cold symptoms appear, you are contagious. That means you can spread the virus to others. 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 has suggested that zinc supplements may reduce the severity of symptoms and decrease the length of time you are sick—especially if they're started within the first 24 hours of when your symptoms started. You can get zinc lozenges over-the-counter (OTC).

It is also a good idea to increase your fluid intake as soon as you notice cold symptoms. You'll also want to stay at home home and practice good hand hygiene to prevent spreading the cold to other people.

Stage 2 of a Cold: Peak Symptoms

Stage 2 of a cold is days four through seven. Many people find that their symptoms get worse and peak during this time.

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. A fever is also rare with rhinovirus infections.

Your nasal discharge may get thicker and change color. Severe congestion can lead to complications of the common cold, such as middle ear infections, sinus infections, and pneumonia.

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

You should also call your provider if you have symptoms of an ear infection or sinus infection. These can be secondary bacterial infections that require antibiotics.

Decongestants or OTC cough and cold remedies can ease cold symptoms in adults, but research suggests that they are not as beneficial for children. Ask your pediatrician before giving these medications to your child if they have a cold.

Increasing your fluid intake and using a cool-mist humidifier can also ease congestion.

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

Stage 3 of a Cold: Recovery

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

The total length of a cold varies and depends on several factors like the virus causing it, your overall health, and your immune system. By the third stage, your symptoms should gradually improve until they resolve.

A small number of people who recover from a cold develop a persistent cough. This condition is called a postinfectious cough, and it lasts longer than three weeks and up to eight weeks after being sick with an upper respiratory virus infection.

It's not clear why postinfectious coughs happen, but it might be associated with too much inflammation and mucus production during a cold. Sometimes, Bordetella pertussis infection is responsible for postinfectious cough.

People with postinfectious cough are not usually contagious as long as their other symptoms have gotten better.

If you have a lingering cough, talk to your provider. They'll need to rule out another complication of cold viruses, like pneumonia.


The common cold lasts from seven to 10 days and goes through three stages.

The incubation period of one to a few days, followed by the first stage with the onset of symptoms. In the second stage (from the fourth to the seventh day) cold symptoms worsen and peak. The third stage follows day seven and brings the resolution of the symptoms. However, some cold symptoms may linger for up to three weeks.

A Word From Verywell

Colds and other respiratory infections are among the most common illnesses that people get. You can 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 nutritious and balanced diet. Reducing stress is another great way to boost your immunity.

If you do catch a cold, taking care of yourself will help you avoid complications and make a quick recovery. Drink plenty of fluids, rest, and talk to your provider if you're worried about your symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you shorten the duration of a cold?

    Maybe. Studies show zinc can shorten the duration of a cold by about one-third. Taking high doses of vitamin C may also reduce the length of a cold. Research shows between 1,000 and 2,000 mg of vitamin C daily reduced the duration of a cold by about 14% in adults. It can also make symptoms less severe. 

    Echinacea, black elderberry syrup, beetroot juice, and probiotic drinks may also help reduce the cold's length and severity, but more research is needed to confirm the effects. 

  • How can you tell the difference between a cold and COVID-19?

    There is a lot of overlap between the common cold and COVID-19. In fact, prior to the pandemic, coronavirus strains were sometimes responsible for the common cold.

    As COVID morphs into different variants, the common symptoms and course of the illness have changed. Some COVID variants act just like the common cold.

    The only way to know the difference between a cold and COVID is to test positive for COVID on either a rapid at-home test or a PCR lab test.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.