Symptoms of the Common Cold

The common cold is caused by any of a number of respiratory viruses and produces familiar symptoms including stuffiness, runny nose, cough, and sore throat. People often confuse the common cold and the flu. It's understandable since both are primarily respiratory viruses and many of their symptoms are so similar. In general, though, cold symptoms tend to be milder than those of the flu, and influenza is a much more serious illness.

common cold symptoms
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Frequent Symptoms

The common cold can cause different symptoms in different people. If your cold is caused by a rhinovirus but your friend's cold is caused by an adenovirus, for example, you may not have the exact same symptoms. That said, they will still be pretty similar.

Common symptoms you may experience with a cold include:

The typical course of a cold is gradual onset, a peak of symptoms in one to three days, and a clearing of symptoms by seven days. A cough may linger.

Recognizing the symptoms of the common cold is important for a few reasons. If you identify what symptoms are bothering you the most, you can choose a medication that specifically addresses them (and not others). You may also prevent unnecessary healthcare provider visits if you know that you simply have a cold.

Rare Symptoms

With colds, it is rare for adults to have a fever. Other less common symptoms include body aches, headache, chills, sweating, and fatigue. These are usually mild if they occur with a cold, while they are often more severe with influenza.

It is rare have nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea with a cold; these may indicate a different illness is to blame.

Is It a Cold?
  • You gradually began to feel sick.

  • You don't feel well, but can still function (e.g., go to work or school).

  • Your most significant symptoms are congestion, cough, and/or a sore throat.

Or the Flu?
  • Illness came on abruptly.

  • It is hard to even get out of bed.

  • You may be experiencing fever, body aches, chills, and headache.

Complications/Sub-Group Indications

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that because it is easy to confuse the symptoms of colds and influenza, those at high risk for influenza complications (e.g., kids under age 5, pregnant women, and others) should contact their healthcare provider to determine exactly what's making them sick.

That doesn't mean that the common cold is harmless in all cases, however. Some may be at greater risk of complications for this illness as well. For example, people with asthma are at higher risk of an asthma attack with a cold.

If you have other lung conditions such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, or chronic heart disease, you are likely to have your symptoms worsened for weeks after you have otherwise recovered from a cold. This can include a persistent cough. Sinus infections and ear infections can also follow a cold.

Pneumonia is one of the most serious complications that can result from a cold. This can be due to the virus itself or a bacterial infection of the weakened person's lungs. Those most at risk for pneumonia include infants 2 years old or younger and people who are age 65 or older, as well as people with another respiratory condition and those who smoke.

In children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, croup may occur after a cold or be caused by other viral agents (which may display symptoms similar to a cold). It is a sudden onset of a barking cough, barking cough, stridor when breathing in, hoarseness, and respiratory distress.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

While a cold is one of the most common complaints seen by healthcare providers, it often isn't necessary to get medical help for the common cold. If your symptoms last longer than 10 days—or if you start to feel like you are recovering and then suddenly get worse—it's important to see your practitioner and find out if you have developed another infection.

Since these illnesses may need different treatments, you should talk to your healthcare provider if you are concerned.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You are elderly and have severe cold symptoms.
  • A young child has severe cold symptoms.
  • An infant under 3 months old has a fever or is lethargic.
  • You have trouble breathing or experience chest pains.
  • A cough is persistent and is either hacking or productive (producing phlegm or mucus), as this could be a sign of serious conditions including pneumonia to whooping cough.
  • Your symptoms improve and then worsen.

A Word From Verywell

Colds are some of the most common illnesses Americans deal with each year. The vast majority of colds will be gone in a week, so there is little to do for them other than take care of yourself. Be aware of the risks of complications and their warning signs, however, so you know when to seek medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the symptoms of a cold?

    Symptoms of a common cold include:

    • Sneezing
    • Nasal congestion
    • Runny nose and post-nasal drip
    • Sore or scratchy throat
    • Coughing
    • Watery eyes
    • Fever (sometimes)
  • How soon after exposure do cold symptoms appear?

    A common cold may be caused by any one of over 200 respiratory viruses. After exposure to the virus, the incubation period is usually two to three days. A sore throat and runny nose are often the first signs.

  • How long do cold symptoms last?

    Most colds usually resolve within seven to 10 days, although some cases can persist for up to three weeks.

  • How does a cold differ from the flu?

    Firstly, colds develop gradually over two or three days, while the flu begins abruptly. Flu typically causes fever, chills, headaches, body aches, and fatigue that are less common with colds. On the flip side, sneezing and stuffy nose are characteristic of colds but not the flu.

  • How do cold symptoms differ in children?

    Besides the fact that younger children tend to have colds more frequently than adults⁠—up to six times yearly⁠—they will often experience fever, a symptom considered rare in adults.

  • What are the possible complications of a cold?

    In some people, a cold can cause secondary infections like acute bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and pneumonia. People with a chronic respiratory disease, such as COPD, are at greatest risk. People with asthma are at risk of severe exacerbations, while young children can sometimes develop croup.

12 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.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cold versus flu.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The difference between cold and flu.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Influenza.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Asthma.

  6. American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold.

  7. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Pneumonia.

  8. Johnson DW. CroupBMJ Clin Evid. 2014;2014:0321.

  9. Cleveland Clinic. Common cold: Living with.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold.

  11. Allen GM, Arroli B, Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ. 2014 Feb 18;86(3):190–9, doi:10.1503/cmaj.121442

  12. American Lung Association. Facts about the common cold.

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.