What Are the Stages of a Cold?

It doesn't take long for a cold to manifest itself.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the US sees millions of cases of the common cold each year, with adults getting about two to three colds annually, and children getting them even more frequently.

As far as viral infections go, the common cold is pretty harmless (at least compared to other viruses like the flu and COVID-19). You can't be 100% guaranteed to dodge the common cold, even with proper hand washing and staying away from those who are sick. But you can arm yourself with information regarding all the ins and outs of the common cold.

Here is more about the timeline of the common cold—from infection to symptom onset to when you'll likely start feeling better—so you can be prepared for the illness if it does happen to strike.

How Long Does It Take for Symptoms of a Cold To Show Up?

Like many respiratory viruses, the common cold is spread through person-to-person contact, when infected respiratory droplets from one person make their way into another person, Sterling Ransone, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Health. But you don't get sick right away—the virus needs what's called an incubation period to replicate in your body. A virus' incubation period is the time from when you're first exposed to when you start feeling symptoms.

Cold viruses usually have an incubation period of 24 to 72 hours, Matthew Goldman, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, told Health. But that's just an estimate, Dr. Goldman said, adding that sometimes cold symptoms can show up just 10 to 12 hours after exposure. On the other end of the spectrum, MedlinePlus says it could take up to a week for your cold symptoms to present. So, it really depends on the person and the specific cold virus with which they've come into contact.

What Are the Symptoms of a Cold—And in What Order Do They Show Up?

The CDC states that a sore throat and runny nose are usually the first signs of a cold; coughing and sneezing will likely be the next to follow. Additionally, because there are many different kinds of cold viruses, you may experience other symptoms of well, per MedlinePlus, like cough, decreased appetite, headache or muscle aches, or postnasal drip.

Having a fever is not a necessary symptom for a person to have a cold, but it is likely to occur. Generally speaking, adults either don't have fever with a cold, or they have a very low fever, MedlinePlus says. Children, however, may run a fever of up to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Long Do Colds Last—And How Long Are You Contagious?

While the CDC notes the usual recovery period to be from seven to 10 days, a cold can last from several days to several weeks, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Certain patients—like those with weakened immune systems or other health issues—might suffer from cold symptoms for far longer. "In some patients, illness can last for months, particularly people who smoke," Dr. Goldman said.

While 10 days may seem like a long period of time, Dr. Goldman said that the worst of a cold is usually right in the beginning. "In most cases, symptoms are usually worst in the beginning and diminish over time as the immune system builds resistance," Dr. Goldman added. During that time, your cold symptoms may also change—particularly with nasal symptoms, where your mucus may turn from a clear, thin liquid to a thicker, discolored (yellow or green) liquid, John Hopkins Medicine indicates.

One symptom that might stick around after the others have faded is your cough. "A lingering cough is typically the symptom most people may deal with for weeks to months," Dr. Goldman explained.

As far as contagiousness goes, you're most likely to spread a cold shortly after infection—usually within the first two to three days, MedlinePlus says, adding that most individuals aren't contagious after a week. However, there's still a slight chance you can spread the virus if you still have a cough. "If you've got a cough, you're spreading respiratory droplets," Dr. Ransone said.

When Should You See a Healthcare Professional About Cold Symptoms?

Again, the common cold is relatively harmless—but it does share many symptoms with the flu and COVID-19. That means if you've been knowingly exposed to COVID-19 and you begin showing symptoms shortly after, it's a good idea to get tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, so you don't risk being infected and spreading it to others.

While many people's immune systems are able to fight off a cold relatively easily and within a few days, there is still a chance for complications to arise. According to MedlinePlus, the first step for treating a cold is to do so at home—that means getting enough rest, staying hydrated by drinking fluids, and taking over-the-counter medicines if needed to ease symptoms. But if your symptoms don't go away within that 10-day period, or you begin having difficulty breathing, it's time to see a healthcare provider.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others.

  2. MedlinePlus. Common cold.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Common cold.

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