Common cold symptoms appear about one to three days after the body becomes infected with a cold virus (the "incubation" period.) The symptoms, which are primarily in the nose, are frequently gone in seven to 10 days although they can last from two to 14 days.

Runny Nose or Nasal Congestion

A runny nose and/or nasal congestion (stuffy nose) are two of the most common symptoms of a cold. These symptomsresult when excess fluid causes blood vessels and mucus membranes within the nose to swell. Within three days, nasal discharge tends to become thicker and yellow or green in color. Unless this lasts more than 10 to 14 days (in which case it could be a sinus infection) this discharge is not a reason to take antibiotics. Someone with a cold also may have post-nasal drip.

Learn about other causes of runny noses and nasal congestion.

Sneezing

Sneezing is triggered when the mucus membranes of the nose and throat are irritated. When nasal cells are infected by a cold virus, the body releases its own natural inflammatory mediators, such as histamine. When released, histamines and other inflammatory mediators cause dilation and leakage of blood vessels and mucus gland secretion, leading the irritation that causes sneezing.

Learn about other causes of runny noses and nasal congestion.

Cough

A dry cough or one that brings up mucus, known as a wet or productive cough, can both accompany a cold. Coughs tend to be the last cold-related symptom to go away and can last from one to three weeks. If a cough lasts longer than that, see your primary care provider for an evaluation.

Find out other causes of sneezing.

Sore Throat

A sore throat feels dry, itchy, and scratchy and makes swallowing painful and even difficult. A sore throat can be caused by inflamed tissues brought on by a cold virus or by post-nasal drip, which is when excess mucus drains from the sinuses.

Learn about other causes of coughing.

Slight Muscle Ache

In some cases a cold virus can cause a slight all-over body ache though muscle ache is more common with the flu.

Find out other causes of sore throat.

Other Common Cold Symptoms
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild fatigue
  • Low-grade fever (up to 102 degrees Fahrenheit or 39 centigrade for an adult).
Common Cold Emergency?

Colds are not to be taken lightly in babies or in the elderly. 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). 

When to See a Doctor Adults

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, if you have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, a fever with muscle aches and fatigue or sweating and chills, or severely swollen lymph nodes, see your healthcare practitioner.

Children

See your child's pediatrician immediately if your child has a high fever of (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for a baby under three months, 101 for an infant three to six months, and 102 or higher for a child six months or older), a fever that lasts for more than three days, or if your child is vomiting or having any difficulty breathing. Also head for the pediatrician if your child has a persistent cough, a bad headache, is crying more than usual, is complaining of ear pain, or seems unusually sleepy.