Common cold symptoms appear about one to three days after the body becomes infected with a cold virus. The short period before symptoms appear is called the “incubation” period. Symptoms are frequently gone in seven to 10 days, although they can last from two to 14 days.
A runny nose or nasal congestion (stuffy nose) are two of the most common symptoms of a cold. These symptoms result when excess fluid causes blood vessels and mucous membranes within the nose to swell. Within three days, nasal discharge tends to become thicker and yellow or green in color. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these types of nasal discharge are normal. Someone with a cold also may have postnasal drip, where mucus travels from the nose down to the throat.
These nasal symptoms are common with colds. However, call your doctor if they last more than 10 days, you begin to have yellow/green nasal discharge, or a severe headache or sinus pain, as you may have developed a sinus infection (called sinusitis).
Sneezing is triggered when the mucous membranes of the nose and throat are irritated. When a cold virus infects nasal cells, the body releases its own natural inflammatory mediators, such as histamine. When released, inflammatory mediators cause the blood vessels to dilate and leak, and the mucus glands secrete fluid. This leads to the irritation that causes sneezing.
A dry cough or one that brings up mucus, known as a wet or productive cough, can accompany a cold. Coughs tend to be the last cold-related symptom to go away and they can last from one to three weeks. Contact your doctor if coughing lasts several days.
You should also contact your doctor if you have any of the following cough-related symptoms:
- a cough accompanied by blood
- a cough accompanied by yellow or green mucus that is thick and smells bad
- a severe cough that comes on suddenly
- a cough in a person with a heart condition or who has swollen legs
- a cough that worsens when you lie down
- a cough accompanied by a loud noise when you breathe in
- a cough accompanied by fever
- a cough accompanied by night sweating or sudden weight loss
- your child who is less than 3 months old has a cough
A sore throat feels dry, itchy, and scratchy, makes swallowing painful, and can even make eating solid food difficult. A sore throat can be caused by inflamed tissues brought on by a cold virus. It can also be caused by postnasal drip or even something as simple as prolonged exposure to a hot, dry environment.
In some cases, a cold virus can cause slight all-over body aches, or headache. These symptoms are more common with the flu.
A low-grade fever may occur in those with a common cold. If you or your child (6 weeks and older) has a fever of 100.4°F or higher, contact your doctor. If your child is younger than 3 months and has a fever of any kind, the CDC recommends calling your doctor.
Other symptoms that may occur in those with a common cold include watery eyes and mild fatigue.
In most cases, symptoms of the common cold are not cause for concern and can be treated with fluids and rest. But colds are not to be taken lightly in infants, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions. A common cold can even be fatal to the most vulnerable members of society if it turns into a serious chest infection like bronchiolitis, caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
With the common cold, you are not likely to experience a high fever or be sidelined by fatigue. These are symptoms commonly associated with the flu. So, see your doctor if you have:
- cold symptoms that last longer than 10 days
- fever of 100.4°F or higher
- a fever with sweating, chills, or a cough that produces mucus
- severely swollen lymph nodes
- sinus pain that is severe
- ear pain
- chest pain
- trouble breathing or shortness of breath
See your child’s pediatrician immediately if your child:
- is under 6 weeks and has a fever of 100°F or higher
- is 6 weeks or older and has a fever of 101.4°F or higher
- has a fever that has lasted for more than three days
- has cold symptoms (of any type) that have lasted for more than 10 days
- is vomiting or having abdominal pain
- is having difficulty breathing or is wheezing
- has a stiff neck or severe headache
- is not drinking and is urinating less than usual
- is having trouble swallowing or is drooling more than usual
- is complaining of ear pain
- has a persistent cough
- is crying more than usual
- seems unusually sleepy or irritable
- has a blue or gray tint to their skin, especially around the lips, nose, and fingernails