Catching a cold can be draining. It can zap your energy and make you feel lethargic, which can obviously get in the way of your everyday life.
A sore throat, blocked nose, coughing and sneezing can often feel like a cold can last forever. Still, it's thought that you can begin to feel better in around one to two weeks.
In this article, we’ll go through the early symptoms of a cold, how you can expect to feel at different times throughout the virus and how you can treat it effectively, without spreading it.
What is a cold?
A cold, or common cold is a mild viral infection that effects the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways in both adults and children.1
The most common symptoms include:2
- Blocked or runny nose
- Sore throat
In more severe circumstances you may feel a high temperature, aching muscles and headaches. However, these symptoms are generally more associated with flu.
- A cold is a minor viral infection that effects the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways in both adults and children
How long does a cold last?
In most cases, you can treat a cold without seeing a GP within a week or two.3 Children may take a little longer to recover in some cases.
If your symptoms worsen and you have breathing difficulties, it’s thought you should consult your GP.
- A cold can last for one to two weeks
- Children or the elderly can take a little longer to recover in some cases
How long does a head cold last?
The common cold will last around seven to ten days. While there is no strict rule on headaches during the cold cycle (see below) it is thought that congestion will usually occur in the first 1-3 days before it begins to subside.
How long does a runny nose last?
As above, there is no specific time as we all deal with a cold differently. However, it's thought that you might feel more nasal on days 3 and 4 as your body works the virus out of your system.
Life cycle of a cold
Your cold should last around one to two weeks, but you’ll notice different symptoms throughout that cycle. It is thought that you’ll experience a five stage pattern that will indicate where you are in the cycle and can indicate where you are in terms of recovery.
The timeline of a cold
Are you showing signs of a cold and keen to know what’s coming? Or have you been battling a cold for a while and are desperate to know if the end is in sight?
Our timeline of symptoms should help.
It’s unlikely at this stage that you’ll feel any particular symptoms at this stage.
However, if you are stressed you may be more susceptible to catching bugs as stress can disrupt your immune system and make it less efficient.
Excess stress also decreases the white blood cells in your body, which are needed in abundance for fighting off viruses such as the common cold.4
Days 1 and 2
Colds can begin with a few different symptoms, but the most common symptoms in the early days indicate that the virus is directly affecting your respiratory system congestion, e.g. a runny nose, and sore throat.
In this first stage, it’s especially important to rest as much as possible to minimize fatigue and allow your immune system to work to its full capacity.5
Days 3 and 4
During the third and fourth day, you’re likely to be in the peak of the virus.6
It’s likely that you’ll feel very nasal. You might notice that the mucus from your nose has become thicker, possibly even yellow, or green in colour. This is usually down to a spike in the number of white blood cells your immune system has produced in order to overcome the virus.
As you begin to feel better, the discharge will begin to clear up. However, at this stage you may develop a cough in response.7
Days 5 to 7
It’s possible that you might be feeling low during days 5 – 7. This is a normal side-effect of feeling under the weather physically. Try to go easy on yourself during this time and reschedule and postpone anything you can while you focus on resting and getting better
You shouldn’t however feel unable to leave your bed at all. If this is the case, you might have ‘flu’.
You’re highly contagious during this time, as you’re probably expelling droplets via sneezing and coughing. Be sure to bin used tissues, and of course, wash your hands frequently.
Days 8 – 10
By this time, you might be over the worst but you’re likely to still feel tired, achy and your sore throat and congestion are probably still there – at least less severe.
A cough might be the last symptom to disappear, and you might be stuck with a cough for a few days after your other symptoms have ended.
Any lingering symptoms such as sneezing mean you could still be contagious during this time.
You might feel up to spending time in the kitchen, so make some healthy choices to get your strength back.
If your cough persists
A fever is your body’s way of fighting off a virus, so don’t worry if you have a slight temperature. However, if your fever goes above 38 or 39 degrees centigrade it could be a sign of another condition.
The NHS states that you should consult your doctor when:8
- You're concerned about your child's symptoms
- Your symptoms don’t improve after three weeks
- Your symptoms suddenly worsen
- If you feel hot and shivery with a very high temperature
- You're feeling short of breath or develop chest pain
- you have a long-term medical condition – for example, diabetes, or a heart, lung or kidney condition
- you have a weakened immune system – for example, because you're having chemotherapy
- Colds can begin with several symptoms, and while there are no set rules it’s often thought you will begin with a head cold, moving on to a sore throat before you begin on the road to recovery
How do you make a cold go away faster?
The NHS offers four pieces of advice to help recover from a cold as quickly as possible, they include:9
Four ways to treat a cold:
- Rest and sleep: This will allow the body time to recover
- Keep warm: It's important to maintain temperature
- Drink plenty of water: Fruit juice or squash with water are both ideal to avoid dehydration
- Adults can gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat, however this is not suitable for children.
You can also see our 5 ways to help with your cold article on the health hub, which will give you more detailed information.
- In order to treat your cold, it's important to get rest to allow your body to recover
- You must also stay warm and hydrated in order to treat the cold the best way you can
How long does it take to catch a cold?
The cold is an infectious virus which can easily be spread between people from a few days before their symptoms begin right up until symptoms have finished, which is around 1 to 2 weeks.
Colds are spread by germs which come from your coughs and sneezes, which can live on your hands and surfaces for 24 hours.10
To avoid catching a cold, you should:
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water
- You can avoid contracting the virus by not sharing towels, cups or any household items that may come into direct contact with somebody carrying the virus
- Looking after your health and wellbeing - being active and keeping a healthy diet
Why is my cold lasting so long?
If your cold lasts longer than three weeks, it may be that your cold has progressed to something more serious and you should consider consulting your doctor.
It might also be a good idea to get advice from a GP if you're concerned about your baby or an elderly person, or if you have a long-term illness such as a lung condition.
You can phone NHS's 111 service for advice.
The common cold summary
The common cold will typically clear up in around one to two weeks. Children and elder adults may take a little longer to recover.
There’s no specific cure for the cold, so it's generally more about prevention. This can be done by resting, making sure you get enough fluids and generally looking after yourself.
Your cold should not last longer than three weeks. If after that time you are still feeling no better, then you should consult your GP.
Last updated: 29 April 2021