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How long do cold symptoms last?

how long do cold symptoms last
(Image credit: Getty Images)

'How long do cold symptoms last for?' is one of the most common things to worry about when you're suffering from a cold. Some people recover from a common cold in a couple of days, but it can last longer. How long the symptoms last may also be an indication of a more serious illness and knowing these symptoms can help you differentiate between a cold, the flu or COVID-19.

It's called the common cold for a reason: it's prevalent. On average, adults suffer from two or three colds a year, while children catch colds more frequently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in new tab) (CDC). 

If you are suffering from a cold, investing in one of the best humidifiers (opens in new tab) could help to increase moisture in the air in your home, potentially easing symptoms.

Symptoms of a cold

The cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract — the nose and throat — with many types of viruses causing it, according to the Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab). Rhinoviruses are the most common cause. Cold viruses spread through air droplets from infected people when they cough, sneeze or talk, as well as from sharing contaminated objects, such as a hand towel. 

It's possible to get sick with a cold at any time of the year, but it's more widespread in winter and spring. The CDC lists the symptoms of a cold as including sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches and body aches. These symptoms should subside as the immune system kicks into gear — and the body recovers within seven to 10 days (opens in new tab)

If cold symptoms don't improve, or they worsen, see a doctor. People with asthma, respiratory conditions or weakened immune systems may develop serious illnesses, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, from having a cold. 

How to aid cold symptoms

While there is no cure or vaccine for the common cold, there are ways to relieve the symptoms. The CDC recommends lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated with water, tea, broth or similar liquids prevents dehydration — while easing congestion — though coffee, alcohol, sodas and sugary juices should be avoided. Warm beverages have the added benefit of soothing the throat. 

Cold medicines can help ease the symptoms, by decongesting the sinuses for example, but they do not rid you of the cold faster. Taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen can also be used for relieving fever, aches and pains. However, these medications should be used for the shortest amount of time possible to relieve symptoms and the directions on the label should be followed to avoid side effects, according to the Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab)

woman with a cold blowing her nose

(Image credit: Getty images)

Antibiotics should never be used for a cold, as they do not work against viruses, and if taken when not needed can make it difficult for the immune system to fight future bacterial infections, according to the CDC (opens in new tab)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (opens in new tab)suggests the use of a cool-mist humidifier to make breathing easier, as it decreases congestion in nasal passages. A humidifier emitting warm moisture can cause the nasal passages to swell and make breathing more difficult. Check out our guide to the best humidifiers to help you breathe easy.

How to prevent getting a cold

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for good hand hygiene in preventing the spread of viruses. The same goes for the common cold: ensuring hands are washed thoroughly and often can prevent someone from getting a cold. 

Avoid contact with sick people, even if someone just has the sniffles. Not touching the eyes, nose and mouth throughout the day, especially when outside the home, helps prevent the spread of cold viruses from contacting surfaces, such as doors, bus handgrips or pedestrian crossing buttons. 

High-use surfaces like doorknobs, countertops, light switches and mobile devices should be disinfected frequently to prevent the spread of viruses. Not sharing glasses, dishes and utensils with family members can help stop others from getting sick. Keep your germs to yourself by sneezing and coughing into the bend of your elbow or a tissue. 

Build up the immune system with a healthy and nutritious diet, regular exercise and a good night's sleep to help fight viruses. 

What is the difference between cold, flu, and COVID-19 symptoms?

The symptoms of COVID-19 (opens in new tab) are similar to those of a cold, including a cough, sore throat and runny nose. The CDC continues to recommend that all people with symptoms of COVID-19 be tested for the virus. 

Seasonal flu is caused by influenza viruses only (opens in new tab) and not by seasonal coronaviruses. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between catching the flu and a common cold by the symptoms alone. But, generally, the flu makes people feel worse than a cold and flu symptoms are typically more intense, says the CDC (opens in new tab)

Symptoms of flu can include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. There are serious health complications that can develop as a result of being infected by influenzas, such as pneumonia, organ failure, sepsis, and inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues. 

Receiving a flu vaccination yearly is the first and best way to prevent getting sick with influenza, the CDC (opens in new tab) said. 


References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, November 29). Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. https://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/index.html 

Mayo Clinic. (2021, June 11). Common cold. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/symptoms-causes/syc-20351605 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, March 22). Symptoms of COVID-19. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 16). Cold Versus Flu. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 21). Flu Symptoms & Complications. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fflu%2Fabout%2Fdisease%2Fcomplications.htm 

Lindsay Lafreniere is a freelance writer, editor and podcast producer. Lindsay has more than eight years’ experience working in communications, journalism and media relations, including in corporate, non-profit, government, hospital and university environments. Lindsay has worked for various media including broadcasting at the CBC, and in documentary production and magazine publishing at the Walrus, and has also held positions in academic and government communications and corporate online marketing. Lindsay received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English from Victoria University in Canada and a Graduate Diploma in Journalism from Concordia University.