What You Should Know About the Incubation Period for the Common Cold

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We all get colds from time to time. Adults in the United States get an average of 2 to 4 colds per year while children may have up to 12. We are exposed to the viruses that cause cold symptoms year round. They may be more common during the fall and winter months but you can get a cold any time of year.

It's also important to understand that colds are not caused by just one virus. Unlike the flu - which is caused by the influenza virus - cold symptoms can be caused by over 200 different viruses (this is the main reason we will likely never see a cure for the common cold). Rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, enteroviruses and several others can cause cold symptoms.

How the Incubation Period for a Cold Works

Whether you have people hacking and coughing all around you and want to know how soon you will get sick or you are wondering when you could have possibly picked up this virus, we can help.

The typical incubation period for a cold is 1 to 3 days. This means that it takes between 24 and 72 hours from the time you are exposed to the virus until you start to experience symptoms.

Of course, this doesn't mean you will get sick every time you are exposed to a cold virus. You may have immunities to the virus you are exposed to because you have had the same or a similar virus in the past or your body is able to fight it off without causing any significant symptoms for you.

How to Reduce Your Chances of Getting a Cold

Many people swear by any number of remedies to prevent the onset of a cold once they are exposed. Whether it's taking extra vitamin C, echinacea, a homeopathic remedy such as Zicam or Airborne - none of them have been proven to effectively stop or prevent colds. Unfortunately there is no "silver bullet" that will stop a cold in it's tracks.

However, you can reduce your chances that you get sick by avoiding the germs in the first place.

Washing your hands frequently is the best way to prevent the spread of germs.

Avoid touching your nose, eyes, mouth and face as much as possible. These are the primary points of entry in which viruses come into our bodies. If you can avoid touching your face, you will greatly reduce the number of germs that have the chance to make you sick.

Keeping frequently used surfaces clean is important as well. Clean your computer keyboard, cell phones, doorknobs and work telephones often. This is even more important if these surfaces are touched by many people.

It's nearly impossible to avoid every single cold virus simply because there are so many of them. If you find yourself sick with a cold, we have plenty of tips that will help you get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Worrall G. Common cold. Can Fam Physician. 2011;57(11):1289-90.

  2. Worrall G. Common cold. Can Fam Physician. 2007;53(10):1735-6.

  3. Burton M, Cobb E, Donachie P, Judah G, Curtis V, Schmidt WP. The effect of handwashing with water or soap on bacterial contamination of hands. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011;8(1):97-104. doi:10.3390/ijerph8010097

Additional Reading

  • "Common Cold". Respiratory Viruses Apr 14. Infectious Diseases. The Merck Manual Professional Edition. Merck, Sharp & Dohme Corp. Merck & Co, Inc.
  • "Common Cold". MedlinePlus 9 Jan 15. National Library of Medicine. US Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health.