An overhead view of a woman with a cold, wrapped in a blanket, holding a cup of tea. Share on Pinterest

Coming down with a cold can sap your energy and make you feel downright miserable. Having a sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, watery eyes, and a cough can really get in the way of going about your daily life.

Colds are a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract, which include your nose and throat. Head colds, like the common cold, are different from chest colds, which can affect your lower airways and lungs and can involve chest congestion and coughing up mucus.

If you’ve caught a cold, when can you expect to feel better? And what can you do to ease your symptoms in the meantime? We’ll answer these questions and more in this article.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most adults recover from a cold in about 7 to 10 days. Typically, a common cold includes three different phases, each with slightly different symptoms.

1. Early symptoms

The symptoms of a cold can begin as soon as 10 to 12 hours after you’ve been infected. You may notice that your throat feels scratchy or sore and that you have less energy than normal. These symptoms typically last a couple of days.

2. Peak symptoms

About 2 to 3 days after you first started feeling under the weather your symptoms will likely be at their worst. In addition to a sore, scratchy throat and fatigue, you may also develop the following symptoms:

3. Late symptoms

As your cold runs its course, you’ll likely still have some nasal congestion for another 3 to 5 days. During this time, you may notice that your nasal discharge has turned to a yellow or green color. This is a sign that your body has been actively fighting the infection.

Some people may also have a lingering cough or fatigue. In some cases, a cough can last for several weeks.

On average, children get more colds in a year than adults. In fact, while an average adult may experience two to four colds in a year, children may have between six and eight.

The duration of a cold can be longer in children — up to 2 weeks.

While cold symptoms are similar in children and adults, some additional symptoms in children include:

  • decreased appetite
  • trouble sleeping
  • irritability
  • difficulty breastfeeding or taking a bottle

Although most children will get better within a couple weeks, you should keep an eye out for possible complications. These include:

  • Ear infection. Look for signs of ear pain such as ear rubbing or scratching and increased irritability
  • Sinus infection. Signs to look out for include congestion and nasal discharge that continues for more than 10 days, facial pain, and possibly a fever
  • Chest infection. Check for signs that indicate difficulty breathing such as wheezing, rapid breathing, or nostril widening

The best way to treat a common cold is to focus on alleviating the symptoms until the infection has run its course. Since a cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics aren’t an effective treatment.

Some ways to feel better while you’re getting over a cold include over-the-counter (OTC) medications and basic home remedies.

OTC pain relievers can help relieve symptoms like fever, headache, and aches and pains. Some options include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), aspirin, and acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Never give aspirin to children under age 18, as it can cause a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome. Consider looking for products specifically formulated for children such as Children’s Motrin or Children’s Tylenol.

There are many types of OTC medications that can help relieve cold symptoms like nasal congestion, watery eyes, and cough. Consider these OTC medications:

  • Decongestants can relieve congestion within the nasal passages.
  • Antihistamines can help relieve a runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, and sneezing.
  • Expectorants can make coughing up mucus easier.

Some cough and cold medications have caused serious side effects in young children and infants, such as slowed breathing. Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend the use of these medications in children under 2 years old.

There are also many self-care measures that may help ease your symptoms:

  • Rest up. Staying home and limiting your activity can help your body fight the infection and prevent its spread to others.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluid can help break up nasal mucus and prevent dehydration. Avoid caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea, or sodas, which can be dehydrating.
  • Consider zinc. There’s some evidence that zinc supplementation may reduce the length of a cold if started shortly after symptoms start.
  • Use a humidifier. A humidifier can add moisture to a room and help with symptoms like nasal congestion and a cough. If you don’t have a humidifier, taking a warm, steamy shower may help loosen up congestion in your nasal passages.
  • Gargle with salt water. Dissolving salt in warm water and gargling with it may help ease a sore throat.
  • Try lozenges. Lozenges that contain honey or menthol may help soothe a sore throat. Avoid giving lozenges to young children, as they can be a choking hazard.
  • Use honey to help ease a cough. Try adding 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey to a cup of warm tea. However, avoid giving honey to children under 1 year of age.
  • Avoid smoking, secondhand smoke, or other pollutants, which can irritate your airways.
  • Use a nasal saline solution. A saline nasal spray may help thin out the mucus in your nasal passages. Although saline sprays contain just salt and water, some nasal sprays may contain decongestants. Be careful using nasal decongestion sprays, as prolonged use can actually make symptoms worse.

The common cold is contagious. This means that it can be passed from person to person.

When you have a cold, you’re contagious from shortly before your symptoms start until they go away. However, you’re more likely to spread the virus when your symptoms are at their peak — typically during the first 2 to 3 days of having a cold.

If you’re sick, follow the pointers below to prevent spreading your cold to others:

  • Avoid close contact with others, such as shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. Stay home if you can instead of going out in public.
  • Cover your face with a tissue if you cough or sneeze, and dispose of used tissues promptly. If no tissues are available, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow instead of into your hand.
  • Wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Disinfect surfaces that you touch frequently, such as doorknobs, faucets, refrigerator handles, and toys.

While it’s not always possible to avoid catching a cold, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of picking up a cold virus.

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water. If washing your hands isn’t possible, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose, eyes, especially if your hands aren’t freshly washed.
  • Stay away from people who are sick. Or keep your distance so you’re not in close contact.
  • Avoid sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses, or personal items with others.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle to keep your immune system in tip-top shape. This includes eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and trying to keep your stress under control.

Most colds symptoms typically get better within a week or two. Generally speaking, you should see a doctor if symptoms last longer than 10 days without improvement.

Additionally, there are some other symptoms to watch out for. Follow up with your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:

In adults

  • a fever that’s 103°F (39.4°C) or higher, lasts longer than 5 days, or goes away and returns
  • chest pain
  • a cough that brings up mucus
  • wheezing or shortness of breath
  • severe sinus pain or headache
  • severe sore throat

In children

  • a fever of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher; or above 100.4°F (38°C) in babies younger than 3 months
  • persistent cough or a cough that brings up mucus
  • wheezing or trouble breathing
  • nasal congestion that lasts longer than 10 days
  • decreased appetite or fluid intake
  • unusual levels of fussiness or sleepiness
  • signs of ear pain, such as scratching of the ears

In adults, the common cold typically clears up in about 7 to 10 days. Children may take slightly longer to recover — up to 14 days.

There’s no cure for the common cold. Instead, treatment focuses on symptom relief. You can do this by drinking plenty of fluids, getting enough rest, and taking OTC medications where appropriate.

While colds are typically mild, be sure to see your doctor if your symptoms, or your child’s symptoms, are severe, don’t improve, or continue to get worse.