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.
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.
This article will take a closer look at the typical symptoms of a cold for both adults and children, what you can do to ease your symptoms, and how to prevent a cold in the first place.
Typically, for most adults, the symptoms of a cold last for around 7 to 10 days.
The duration of a cold can be longer in children — up to 2 weeks.
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
2. Peak 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.
Cold symptoms in children
While cold symptoms are similar in children and adults, some additional symptoms in children include:
- decreased appetite
- trouble sleeping
- 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.
A stuffy nose is a common cold symptom because having a cold increases the levels of inflammatory compounds in your nose. These compounds can cause drainage and swelling in your nose, making it feel “stuffy.”
While the incubation period (the time between contracting a cold virus and when your symptoms first appear) is usually around 48 hours, some people report stuffy nose symptoms within hours after the cold virus enters their nasal passages.
The compounds that cause nasal irritation usually peak at about 48 to 72 hours after the virus first hits your nose. This is when your runny nose is likely to be at its worst, but it may still linger for several more days.
Your stuffy nose will likely clear up before typical later-stage symptoms like a cough.
You may be able to ease your nasal congestion by:
- Breathing in steam. Steam from a shower or from leaning over a steaming hot bowl of water may help thin out the mucus in your nose. This can help reduce inflammation and make it easier to breathe. Using a humidifier can also help soothe irritated nasal tissue.
- Using a warm compress. Placing a warm, moist towel or washcloth over your nose may help ease pain and relieve inflammation in your nostrils.
- Staying well-hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids can help thin out the mucus in your nose and reduce the pressure in your sinuses.
- Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medication. A decongestant may help reduce swelling, irritation, and nasal congestion. Examples include Sudafed and Afrin. However, it’s important not to take a decongestant for longer than 3 days unless you’ve discussed this with your doctor. Taking a nasal decongestant for more than 3 days could make your stuffiness worse.
A runny nose, also known as nasal drainage, is an unpleasant side effect of most colds. A runny nose is usually at its peak about 2 to 3 days after your symptoms start, but may last up to a week.
A runny nose usually starts out with clear, watery mucus. As your cold progresses, it often becomes thicker with more of a yellow or green tinge. The color change is good news. It means your immune system has kicked in and your white blood cells are fighting off the cold virus.
However, if your nasal discharge is a yellow or green color and lasts longer than 10 days, it could be a sign that a bacterial infection is causing your runny nose symptoms, and not a viral infection.
You may be able to ease your runny nose by taking an OTC antihistamine, like Benadryl, Zyrtec, or Claritin. These medications may help dry up a runny nose and also reduce sneezing.
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 taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications and basic home remedies.
Over-the-counter pain relievers
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.
Other OTC medications
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)
At-home care and remedies
There are also many self-care measures that can help ease your symptoms:
- Rest up. Staying home and limiting your activity can help your body fight the infection and prevent its spread to other people.
- 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 evidencethat 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.
- 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.
- 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 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. Inhaling tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke, or other pollutants can irritate your airways.
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.
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.
There are also some other symptoms to watch out for. Follow up with your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:
- 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
- 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
- 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 within 10 days, or continue to get worse.