What To Know About How Long Does a Common Cold Usually Last

Don't be surprised if it takes quite a while to feel better.

Having a common cold is annoying. Once that runny nose, headache, or cough starts, your first question may be, When will this end? Unfortunately, it might not be as soon as you'd hoped. Here's how long a cold typically lasts, whether there's any way to shorten the length of your cold, and when you should see a healthcare provider.

How Long Does a Cold Last? Here’s How Many Days You Can Expect to Experience Symptoms , Cropped shot of a young woman blowing her nose into a tissue
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Common Colds Duration

The typical cold is going to last between three and 10 days, Russ Wasylyshyn, MD, a faculty member with the University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine, told Health. But don't immediately get worried if your symptoms last longer than that.

Three to 10 days is just the typical duration, meaning it's not out of the ordinary if your cold lasts a little longer. Dr. Wasylyshyn said that 25% of patients will still have some symptoms 14 days after their cold started. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also states that runny and stuffy noses can last up to two weeks.

And even after your cold has gone away, you might still have lingering effects for days—even weeks—afterward. It's known as a post-viral syndrome, and it's very common, according to Dr. Wasylyshyn.

So, maybe your nose isn't as stuffy, perhaps you don't feel as crummy, but you still have a slight cough hanging around or a little bit of a nagging sore throat.

Most of the time, the post-viral syndrome will take the form of a cough. And that cough can stick around for up to three to four weeks—though most people are completely back to their old self in two weeks, said Daniel Merenstein, MD, director of family medicine research at Georgetown University Medical Center.

When to See a Doctor

If you've been coughing for three or so weeks after recovering from your cold, you might start to wonder, Is something wrong with me? Is this more than a cold?

"The answer is probably not," Dr. Wasylyshyn said. A cold that lasts 14 days or a lingering cough that lasts up to a month shouldn't worry you. You may consider getting checked by a healthcare professional, but wait until it's been four weeks. That's about when the last of your post-viral syndrome departs.

If a patient has had a lingering cough for a month and doesn't seem to be letting up, Dr. Wasylyshyn looks for potential causes other than a cold.

"I'm going to want to do a chest X-ray to make sure there's not a mass there. I may consider pulmonary function tests to see if there's an underlying chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma," Wasylyshyn explained.

Gastroesophageal reflux or GERD is another common cause of lingering cough.

"So, four weeks isn't the limit, but it's where I would want to do more testing," Wasylyshyn added.

And that extra testing at the four-week mark goes for everybody—even if you are an otherwise healthy 20-something-year-old. Other providers might wait even longer before calling for additional tests.

Dr. Merenstein said that while at four weeks, you might start to consider underlying causes, six weeks of a lingering cough is more likely to indicate a need for further tests.

Aside from a cough lingering for over a month, you'll also want an office visit if you experience shortness of breath or a fever over 101 degrees at any point in your illness, according to Dr. Merenstein. These both might be signs of something more than a cold.

Signs It Might Be More Than a Common Cold

You'll also want to schedule a visit with your healthcare professional if your symptoms are getting worse throughout your sickness, Dr. Wasylyshyn said.

Also, see your healthcare professional if all of your symptoms improve except for one focal area that worsens. That may be one sinus or one ear, for example. That may mean you have a secondary bacterial infection that requires antibiotics.

Colds usually start with a tickle in the throat. From there, they progress over the next couple of days to a little bit of sinus congestion, a cough, and then to just a general feeling of being unwell. Colds typically peak on day two or three. After that, symptoms stay the same and then improve.

If symptoms instead continue to worsen, that could be a red flag that what you're dealing with is more than a cold.

Colds move slowly. If you're OK at dinner, and then by 9 p.m. you have a fever and chills, that's likely not a cold—think more along the lines of influenza, Dr. Merenstein said.

Cold Length vs. Cold Severity

Does having a cold for what seems like a long time means it's a really bad one?

No, at least not in the sense that it was a more virulent virus, according to Dr. Wasylyshyn. It stinks to deal with a cold for 14 days compared to five. But just because it's longer doesn't mean your cold is more severe.

How long a cold lasts depends on your body's response to it. For instance, someone who's immunocompromised might have a cold that lingers longer, according to Dr. Merenstein.

Working When You're Sick

If you're in that post-viral syndrome stage, you're probably not contagious anymore, according to Dr. Wasylyshyn. But if you're still in the stuffy nose, sneezy, full-blown cold period, you should assume you're contagious.

"That does not necessarily mean stay home," Wasylyshyn said. "It's possible to responsibly go to work with a cold."

Wearing a mask will cut down on cold transmission. Keeping up with hand hygiene in the office is key, too—especially if mucus from your nose or throat has touched your hands.

Doing both "would be the way to limit spread without having to totally disrupt everybody's life with having to stay home with a cold," Dr. Wasylyshyn said.

But before returning to work, make sure you test negative for COVID since the symptoms of mild COVID and cold are similar.

Can You Cure a Common Cold?

Research isn't clear on that. Some research says there's nothing you can do. Others show that taking echinacea, zinc, or probiotics right at the start of your cold could shorten it, but the results aren't super clear, Dr. Merenstein says.

Instead, try taking medicine like Tylenol or Robitussin. They won't shorten your cold, but they can help make you feel better in the short term. Because many cold symptoms—like runny nose and postnasal drip—are generated from the sinuses, Dr. Wasylyshyn suggested focusing on clearing them up. That may also mean using decongestants like Sudafed or Afrin.

Use certain nasal sprays like Afrin for three days at most because they can cause stubborn rebound congestion. And people who have high blood pressure or other heart-related issues should use oral decongestant medications like Sudafed medications with caution. These medications can also worsen symptoms of insomnia.

They can also worsen symptoms of insomnia.

Dr. Wasylyshyn also swore by nasal irrigation pots to stop colds in their tracks. But medicine's effects vary from person to person, and what works for you might not work for someone else, and vice versa.

Use nasal irrigation with caution if you have any ear pain or ear congestion. Plain nasal saline sprays are another option that can be soothing and keep mucous moving.

Either way, it's essential to stay hydrated. Be sure to get plenty of clear fluids.

What to Know About Kids' Colds

OK, so maybe you go back to feeling fine 10 days after your cold started. But if you have kids under 6, you might feel their colds last longer—as if they always have a cold. And according to Dr. Wasylyshyn, that's a normal feeling for parents.

Why? Well, adults tend to have two to three colds per year. But, the average child who is under 6 has six to eight. And those colds—that last up to 14 days—tend to be clustered between September and April. That works out to kids having one cold per month, which means that from September to April, the average child is sick with a cold half of the time.

"I just like to be able to reassure parents, if you feel like half of the time your kid is sick—yup, your kid's normal. That's sort of the way of the world. That's their immune system learning the cold, and we don't need to worry that there's something insidious going on," Dr. Wasylyshyn said.

A Quick Review

A typical cold lasts three to 10 days, but a quarter of people may still feel crummy two weeks out or more.

It can take up to four weeks to feel completely over a cold, and that's not necessarily cause for worry. There isn't much evidence showing how to shorten a cold's duration, but some experts recommend focusing on sinus symptoms to feel better overall.

On the main, if your symptoms haven't improved after about a month or they're getting worse as time passes, rather than better, see a healthcare professional to rule out other underlying conditions.

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2 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold.

  2. Pappas DE. The common cold. In: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Elsevier; 2018:199-202.e1. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-323-40181-4.00026-8

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