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How Long Does A Cold Last and How to Get Rid of One Fast

Wondering how long a cold lasts? Find out the average duration of a cold, how long it is contagious, and how to treat a cold fast.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Dec 16, 2023 2:00 PM
man on couch with a blanket blowing nose has a cold
(Credit:MAYA LAB/Shutterstock)


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The sore throat. The packed and painful sinuses. The fatigue. Sure, it’s “just a cold,” but it can feel miserable. And after several days, one can easily wonder when they can expect to feel better.

Scientists are still learning about colds and how they impact the body. One thing researchers know for sure — symptoms can last the better part of a month. 

If it seems like someone in the household is always sick, colds might be the culprit. Adults typically catch two to four colds per year. Kids can catch as many as six to 10 colds per year. 

How Long Does a Cold Last?

How long a cold lasts depends on the person and the symptoms. Whereas most adults feel better after 10 to 14 days, specific symptoms may take longer to resolve. A cough can last an average of 18 days in adults and 21 days in kids. Runny or stuffy noses can clear up in about two weeks for adults and about a week for children.  

How Do Colds Start?

Colds often start with a sore throat. Symptoms can also include sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, coughing, and watery eyes. Fevers typically aren’t associated with colds. 

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

One key difference between a cold and the flu is that the flu has a rapid onset. Very quickly, a person has a high fever, chills, sore muscles, and aching joints. With a cold, symptoms tend to develop over a few days.

How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

It's possible to transmit the common cold to others a few days before you even start showing symptoms, and you can continue to be contagious until you've completely recovered. Typically, a person with a cold remains infectious for about two weeks.

The first 2 to 3 days of a cold often bring the worst symptoms, and it's during this time that you're most likely to pass the virus on to others.

Read MoreWhat's the Difference Between Influenza and Stomach Flu?

How to Prevent a Cold

There are more than 200 viruses that cause colds. Most are rhinoviruses, which means they spread through the air and then enter the nose or mouth through close contact.

Is There a Vaccine for the Common Cold?

If people can get flu shots every year, it makes sense to question whether a vaccine for colds could also be available. But with flu shots, scientists can predict the season's most dominant strain and formulate a vaccine that protects against that strain.

Because there are more than 200 viruses that can cause colds, they mutate too easily for scientists to target them through a vaccine, and researchers say there is still a lot they have to learn about colds. 

Can Cold Weather Make You Sick?

People catch colds when they come into contact with a virus by either breathing it in or touching something that has come into contact with it and then touching their own mouth or nose.

Once inside the body, colds make their way into the lining of our airways. When the weather is cold, and our lungs breathe in cold air, our body isn’t as sensitive in detecting the cold virus. 

Read More: Why Do I Get Sick So Often, While Others Stay in Freakishly Good Health?

How to Treat a Cold

Colds might be miserable, but they don’t have the potential to cause serious harm like the flu or pneumonia. They can be treated at home, and medical attention isn’t needed.

Do Antibiotics Help a Cold?

No, antibiotics treat bacterial infections like strep throat or certain skin infections. Colds are viral infections, so they wouldn’t be helped by antibiotics. 

Does Vitamin C Help With Colds?

Scientists don’t agree on whether taking extra doses of vitamin C can help prevent a cold or reduce the severity. However, they do agree that the body needs vitamin C, and people who are deficient are more vulnerable to infections.

Most people have enough vitamin C in their system from their diet. People who smoke cigarettes tend to have lower levels of vitamin C. And there are some parts of the world where people don’t have access to vitamin C-rich foods, or they have cooking practices that degrade the potency (vitamin C is water-soluble and heat-labile). 

Does Zinc Help With Colds?

Scientists have seen evidence that zinc lozenges help a cold if taken at the onset. However, they are still debating how much they help a cold. Some say zinc lozenges reduce a cold by three days. Others say it’s more like four. 

Read More: Is Vitamin C Actually an Effective Cold Remedy?

When Do I See a Doctor for a Cold?

People should see their symptoms ease within three to four days. People should see a medical professional if they have a persistent fever, ongoing vomiting, or other symptoms that seem not to improve or even worsen.

People should also seek help if they have trouble breathing or sudden symptoms such as chest pain, stomach pain, dizziness, or odd behavior. These could be symptoms of a greater issue.

(Credit: Photoroyalty/Shutterstock)

How to Get Rid of a Cold Fast

Taking it easy is one-way people can help fight off the infection. People should also be mindful of hydration and ensure they take in enough fluids.

Aspirin should not be taken for a cold. But people can take other over-the-counter medicines like throat-soothing lozenges, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. Cough suppressants should only be used if the coughing is causing pain. Coughs are the body’s way of removing mucus from the lungs, a process that needs to happen as the body heals.

Read More: Why Are Viruses More Active In The Winter?

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