You can transmit a cold virus to others during the incubation period, which is a few days before your symptoms start. This means you can possibly spread it to other people without even knowing it.

The common cold is a viral infection that affects your upper respiratory tract. It’s a contagious disease, meaning that it can be spread from person to person.

The incubation period for the common cold is typically between 1 and 3 days. This is the time period between exposure to the virus and when you begin to notice symptoms.

Once you develop symptoms, recovery from an uncomplicated cold usually takes about 7 to 10 days. Your infection continues to be contagious as long as you have symptoms.

Since your infection is contagious from before your symptoms start until they improve, you can potentially pass the virus to others for up to 2 weeks.

This article will go into more detail about the common cold, how it’s spread, and what you can do to find relief.

The viruses responsible for the common cold can enter your body through your nose, mouth, or eyes.

Cold viruses can spread through the air. When someone with a cold coughs, sneezes, talks, or laughs, they can spread respiratory droplets through the air that contain the cold virus. If you inhale these respiratory particles, you can get a cold.

You might also get a cold virus through direct contact. For example, someone with a cold may have the virus on their hands. If you shake hands with them and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes afterward, you may develop a cold.

Contaminated objects and surfaces can also transmit the virus. Commonly contaminated objects include door handles, shared eating utensils, and shared toys.

According to recent research, the common cold virus can survive outside the body for 2 to 3 hours.

Colds tend to come on gradually. You may begin to notice symptoms between 1 to 3 days after exposure to the virus.

The most common cold symptoms typically include:

Some of these symptoms may develop earlier than others, while some symptoms like a cough, for instance, may last longer than a sore throat or a runny nose.

There’s no cure for the common cold. Instead, treatment revolves around relieving your symptoms. Self-care measures you can take at home to help ease your cold symptoms include:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • getting plenty of rest
  • using over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve symptoms like a sore throat, fever, and runny or stuffy nose

Some remedies claim to shorten the duration of a cold when taken as soon as you start noticing symptoms.

Here’s a look at some of the most popular cold remedies.

Oral zinc

Research suggests that taking zinc by mouth may reduce the length of a cold when taken within 24 hours after you first notice symptoms.

A 2017 meta-analysis examined seven clinical trials that included a total of 575 participants with a cold. It found that, on average, taking zinc reduced the duration of a cold by 33 percent.

A variety of dosages were examined during the clinical trials. However, there was no evidence that zinc doses over 100 milligrams per day were more effective than lower doses.

Taking oral zinc can have side effects, such as nausea and other digestive symptoms. It can also interact with some types of medication. Because of this, it’s best to talk with a healthcare professional before using it as a treatment option.

The recommended dosage of zinc is different for adults and children. Be sure to read the dosage instructions carefully before giving zinc to your child.

Avoid intranasal zinc that you put up your nose. It has been linked with irreversible loss of sense of smell.

Vitamin C

A 2013 review of clinical trials found that regular vitamin C supplementation doesn’t decrease your likelihood of getting a cold. It can, however, sometimes reduce the duration or severity of your cold.

It should be noted, though, that in these trials, vitamin C didn’t have much of an effect when taken after the onset of symptoms.


There’s mixed evidence regarding the effectiveness of echinacea for treating colds.

A 2014 review of clinical trials found that echinacea only affected the duration of a cold in 1 in 7 trials reviewed.

It can take about 7 to 10 days to fully recover from a cold. You’ll typically start to notice that your symptoms gradually improve as time passes.

A cough due to a cold may linger in some people. On average, a cough can last about 18 days (almost 3 weeks) before going away.

Some people are at an increased risk of cold complications such as:

This includes people with conditions such as:

Be sure to see your doctor or a healthcare professional if you or your child:

  • have symptoms that last longer than 10 days without improving, are very severe, or begin to improve but then return
  • have a fever higher than 103°F (39.4°C) (adult), above 102°F (38.9°C) (child), or above 100.4°F (38°C) (infant younger than 3 months)
  • have a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher that lasts longer than 3 days
  • experience difficulty breathing or have shortness of breath
  • notice that underlying health conditions have worsened

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colds are one of the main reasons people miss school or work. Adults typically have an average of 2 to 3 colds per year, while children have even more.

There are a few steps that you can take to prevent coming down with a cold.

Prevention tips

  • Wash your hands. Since cold viruses can be present on your hands, try to wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Be sure to wash your hands:
    • before touching your mouth, nose, or eyes
    • after being out and about in public spaces
    • after using the bathroom or changing a diaper
    • before and after eating
    • before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Don’t touch your face with unwashed hands. Try to avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes if you haven’t been able to wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, as this can allow the virus on your hands to enter your body.
  • Keep your distance. Because people with cold symptoms can pass the virus to others, try to keep your distance from people who have a cold.
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If you’re currently sick with a cold, there are steps you can take to prevent passing it to others.

If you have a cold:

  • Stay home. If you develop a cold, plan to stay home until you feel better.
  • Wash your hands. To prevent the cold virus from lingering on your hands, make sure to wash your hands with soap and warm water after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Avoid coughing or sneezing directly into your hands. Instead, use a tissue or the crook of your elbow. Dispose of used tissues promptly.
  • Keep your distance. Avoid having close contact with other people until you recover. Try not to shake hands, hug, or stand too close to other people while you have cold symptoms.
  • Disinfect surfaces. Regularly disinfect high-touch surfaces around your house. A few examples include doorknobs, countertops, kitchen appliances, phones, and computer keyboards.
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The common cold is a contagious viral infection with an incubation period of 1 to 3 days. This means it could take up to 3 days for you to notice symptoms after being exposed to the virus.

Colds are contagious during their incubation period, which means that you can potentially pass a cold virus to others without knowing it. You remain contagious as long as you’re experiencing cold symptoms.

There’s no cure for a cold, but taking oral zinc at the first sign of a cold or regularly taking a vitamin C supplement may help to shorten the duration of a cold.

In most cases, you’ll simply need to let your body rest as it fights the infection and begins the recovery process. Drinking plenty of fluids and taking OTC medications to ease symptoms can help you feel better during this time.