A common cold, which is usually simply known as a cold, is the inflammation of the membranes responsible for lining the throat and nose. This inflammation is caused by a virus. There are numerous viruses, but the virus that causes most colds is known as rhinovirus. The common cold can cause a great deal of pain and financial loss for both individuals and society. It impairs productivity and functioning at work, and could have an impact on other activities, including driving. 1-3 Did you know that during the cold and flu season, visits to the doctor for upper respiratory tract infections rise by an estimated 12.5% monthly?4 Thus, a common question is how long will this illness last. The symptoms of a common cold typically peak at around one to three days and last between seven and ten days, although the symptoms can linger for up to three weeks in some people.5,6 The common cold is contagious from a few days before your symptoms start until after they have completely subsided. For about two weeks, the majority of people are contagious. You are most likely to spread the virus during the first two to three days when your symptoms are usually at their worst.
As people get older, the common cold occurs less frequently and has a shorter duration. Adults and children also seem to have differences in their most bothersome symptoms. A symptom of a cold is a runny nose which may last up to a week but peaks at 2 or 3 days. It has been found that a runny or stuffy nose are the most troubling symptoms of a common cold in adults, and the average duration of these symptoms was 11 days.7 The most bothersome symptoms in children were found to be a runny nose and nasal congestion, which were found to occur ten days after the cold began.8 Wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth and nose completely with an elbow or a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and avoid touching others if possible to help prevent the spread of the cold virus.
Causes Of A Cold
The common cold is caused by a virus which affects the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat).5,6 Although the rhinovirus is the main cause of a cold, a virus that causes irritation of the membranes lining the nose and throat results in the common cold.5 These membranes are known as mucous membranes.
A common myth is that you will catch a common cold from being in a cold environment. Although this statement is untrue, research has demonstrated that if environmental cold causes the temperature in the nose and upper airway to drop, the body might not be able to fight the cold viruses as effectively. The rhinovirus also replicates more during colder weather. 9
The common cold is spread easily from person to person and the virus can enter through your nose, mouth or eyes. It is most commonly spread from airborne droplets which can happen through the sneezing or coughing of an infected person. As the virus can enter through your nose, mouth or eyes, the common cold can also be spread by touching surfaces with the virus or shaking hands and then touching these areas.
Symptoms Of A Cold
An incubation period is the duration of time between exposure to the virus to when the person starts experiencing symptoms. This can be seen as the first stage of a cold. The incubation period can vary from person to person, but it is usually two to three days.6
According to the CDC, a runny nose and sore throat are typically the initial symptoms of a cold. These can then be followed by symptoms of sneezing and coughing. Mayo clinic states that the immune system produces more white blood cells in an effort to combat the virus. This explains why your nasal mucus has a green or yellow tint and/or is thicker when you are at the peak of a cold. Before a cold begins, a child's throat could be sore and dry for one or two days beforehand.
Figure: Symptoms of the common cold (created by Aastha Malik)
Remission is seen as the third stage of a cold and is the improvement of the symptoms. This usually happens around the third or fourth day. The mucus usually clears up over the course of the following few days as you get better.
Some symptoms can linger for up to ten days before recovery. However, usually at this stage a person starts to feel like their usual self or close to it.
Recovering From A Cold
How Long Does It Take To Get Over A Cold
The majority of adults recover from a common cold in between 7 and 10 days.
In young children, it may take up to 2 weeks to get over a cold. Children, on average, have more colds a year than adults. Children experience around six to eight colds a year, whereas adults have around two to four colds a year. Since young children have never experienced any of the hundreds of various cold viruses, they lack immunity to any of them, so they have more colds a year than adults.
Over The Counter Pain Relief - Over the counter (OTC) pain relief can help with the different types of pain that the common cold causes. The types of pain caused by a cold include muscle aches, headaches, earaches or a sore throat. The types of pain relief that can be used include acetaminophen (commonly known as paracetamol), naproxen and ibuprofen.
Over The Counter Cold Medications
There is currently no cure for the common cold, but there are medications that can relieve various symptoms of a cold. When you have a cold, you probably won't always experience all of its symptoms. However, depending on your particular symptoms, you will select specific medications. Types of over-the-counter cold medications include
- Nasal decongestants - If you have a congested nose, then nasal decongestants can help. They work by shrinking swollen tissues inside of the nose. They can be taken as a nasal spray, capsules or tablets, liquids or drops.10 However, these shouldn’t be given to children under six years of age.
- Cough suppressants - Cough suppressants should only be used at bedtime if coughing is affecting your sleep or interfering with your everyday life. This is due to the fact that coughing actively defends the body by releasing excess mucus, viruses, and air.
- Antihistamines - Antihistamines prevent the production of histamine, a chemical our bodies naturally produce in response to allergen exposure. Antihistamines may offer some relief from symptoms brought on by histamine production in your body. For example, these sometimes could be coughing, sneezing, itchy ears or eyes, and watery eyes.
Over-the-counter cold and cough medication usually contains ibuprofen or paracetamol so it is easy to accidentally take more than the dose recommended. It is important to ensure that if you are taking painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol tablets, you do not take cough and cold medication.
Antibiotics do not work in treating the common cold as they kill bacteria and not viruses. It is important to not take antibiotics if not needed as it could lead to antibiotic resistance and that might lead to serious consequences. Unlike the flu or COVID-19, there is no vaccination present due to how often the virus mutates. Mutation means the virus changes and causes permanent changes to the virus.
At Home Management
There has not been any strong evidence to suggest that Vitamin C or garlic are home remedies which can make the duration of the common cold symptoms shorter or prevent colds.11,12
A sore throat can be relieved by gargling the mouth with salt water, but this should not be done in children.
- Avoid smoking
- Plenty of rest and sleep is important to recover
- Sucking ice cubes can help with sore throats
- Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration
What Should You Do If Your Cold Doesn’t Clear Up
The CDC recommends that you should see a doctor if your common cold symptoms last more than ten days and/or you have symptoms which are severe or unusual. For example, symptoms which are classed as unusual are chest pain, shortness of breath, a fever which is 39.4 degrees celsius or higher, or lasts longer than five days. It is also important to see a doctor if your child is under three months of age and is lethargic or has a fever. Some people with medical conditions are at higher risk for severe flu complications, and they should also see a doctor. Examples of these common medical conditions or categories of people include diabetics, children under five, adults over 65, pregnant women, and people with asthma or heart disease.
Due to the common symptoms, the cold can be confused with the flu or COVID-19. These upper respiratory symptoms which are seen in the common cold, such as a cough or fever, can be a sign of COVID-19. If you are showing any symptoms, it is important to get tested.
A sore throat is a common sign of a cold, which is usually quickly followed by a stuffy or runny nose. It is also easily spread between others. A cold is normally harmless, despite the fact that you could feel fairly sick when you have one. Your immune system will have little trouble fighting off the virus. Usually, the worst has passed within a week. However, the complete disappearance of the cold symptoms can take a bit longer. Children have a higher prevalence of having a common cold compared to adults.
Since colds are so widespread, the likelihood that you have another illness with similar symptoms is unlikely. However, testing like throat or nose swabs might help to determine if you have the flu, COVID-19 or another more serious infection if your doctor has a suspicion. Call your doctor if your symptoms don't go away in a few days, as there might be a sign of a different infection.
The best defence against the common cold is frequent hand washing and keeping a distance from those who are contagious. Treatments to relieve symptoms include pain relief, resting, and drinking plenty of fluids.
- Smith A, Thomas M, Whitney H. Effects of upper respiratory tract illnesses on mood and performance over the working day. Ergonomics [Internet]. 2000 Jun [cited 2022 Aug 16];43(6):752–63. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10902885/
- Bramley TJ, Lerner D, Sarnes M. Productivity Losses Related to the Common Cold. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine [Internet]. 2002 Sep [cited 2022 Aug 16];44(9):822–9. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12227674/
- Smith AP, Jamson S. An investigation of the effects of the common cold on simulated driving performance and detection of collisions: a laboratory study. BMJ Open [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2022 Aug 16];2(4):e001047. Available from: https://bmjopen.bmj.com
- Do influenza and acute respiratory infective diseases weigh heavily on general practitioners’ daily practice? [Internet]. The European Journal of General Practice. 2019 [cited 2022 Aug 18]. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13814780600757153
- Blaas D. Viral entry pathways: the example of common cold viruses. Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift [Internet]. 2016 May [cited 2022 Aug 15];166(7-8):211–26. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4871925/
- Common Cold [Internet]. Medlineplus.gov. National Library of Medicine; 2016 [cited 2022 Aug 15]. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/commoncold.html
- Arruda E, Pitkäranta A, Witek TJ, Doyle CA, Hayden FG. Frequency and natural history of rhinovirus infections in adults during autumn. Journal of Clinical Microbiology [Internet]. 1997 Nov [cited 2022 Aug 16];35(11):2864–8. Available from: https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128
- Pappas DE, Hendley JO, Hayden FG, Winther B. Symptom Profile of Common Colds in School-Aged Children. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal [Internet]. 2008 Jan [cited 2022 Aug 16];27(1):8–11. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/pidj/Fulltext/2008/01000/Symptom_Profile_of_Common_Colds_in_School_Aged.2.aspx
- Foxman EF, Storer JA, Fitzgerald ME, Wasik BR, Hou L, Zhao H, et al. Temperature-dependent innate defense against the common cold virus limits viral replication at warm temperature in mouse airway cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2015 Jan 5 [cited 2022 Aug 15];112(3):827–32. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4311828/
- Druce HM, Ramsey DL, Karnati S, Carr AN. Topical nasal decongestant oxymetazoline (0.05%) provides relief of nasal symptoms for 12 hours. Rhinology journal [Internet]. 2018 Sep 1 [cited 2022 Aug 16];0(0). Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29785414/
- Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Garlic for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews [Internet]. 2014 Nov 11 [cited 2022 Aug 16];2020(9). Available from: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006206.pub4/full
- Hemilä H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews [Internet]. 2013 Jan 31 [cited 2022 Aug 16];2013(5). Available from: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full