Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Select An Article
Font Size

Common Cold Symptoms: What’s Normal, What’s Not

Your nose is constantly running. You're coughing and your throat is raw. Do you have a cold, allergies, or is it the flu? 

WebMD takes a look at common cold symptoms, and other conditions that may look the same.

Recommended Related to Cold & Flu

Immunity as You Age

Q: Do we get sick less often as we get older because we’ve been exposed to everything? A: When it comes to infectious diseases, this is largely TRUE. Once we endure the sniffles, coughs, and flu bugs of childhood and adolescence, most of us can expect to be "under the weather" a lot less as adults. "If you’re an adult, you’ve probably had most of the childhood diseases already and have an acquired immunity, so your resistance is a little higher," says Russell Robertson, MD, chair...

Read the Immunity as You Age article > >

Beginning Cold Symptoms

Colds usually begin abruptly with a sore throat followed by these common cold symptoms:

  • Clear, watery nasal drainage 
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue
  • Cough

Usually, there is no fever with the common cold. In fact, fever and more severe symptoms may indicate that you have the flu or a bacteria infection and not a cold.

For the first few days of a cold, your nose drips with watery nasal secretions. Later, these secretions may become thicker and darker. 

A mild cough is a common cold symptom and may last into the second week of your cold. If you have asthma or other lung problem, a cold may make it worse. Talk to your health care provider to see if you need to modify your asthma treatment plan or need additional treatment.

If you are coughing up thick or dark mucus or you have a fever, you may have a bacterial infection. Seek care from your health care provider. Also, call your health care provider if your cough doesn't improve after a few weeks.

Common cold symptoms usually start between one and three days after you are infected by a cold virus. Typically, they last for about three to seven days. At that point, the worst is over, but you may feel congested for a week or more. During the first three days that you have cold symptoms, you are most contagious; however, colds are often contagious through the first week. This means you can pass the cold virus to those you come in contact with. 

Is It Allergies Instead of a Cold?

Sometimes you might mistake symptoms of the common cold for allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever. If your cold symptoms begin quickly and are over within one to two weeks, chances are it's a cold and not an allergy. If the symptoms last longer than two weeks, check with your health care provider to see if you've developed an allergy.

Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system. For some reason, your body overreacts to substances such as dust or pollen. It then releases chemicals such as histamine. This can cause swelling in your nasal passages, a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing. Allergies are not contagious, although some people may inherit a tendency to develop them.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's Common Cold or Allergies?

WebMD Medical Reference

Next Article:

Today on WebMD

hot toddy
15 tips to help you feel better.
man sneezing into elbow
Do echinacea and vitamin C really help a cold?
 
teen girl coughing
Get a good night’s rest with these remedies.
elder berry
Eat these to fight colds, flu, and more.
 
Natural Cold Flu Remedies Slideshow
Slideshow
blowing nose
VIDEO
 
Allergy And Sinus Symptom Evaluator
Health Check
Boy holding ear
Article
 
woman receiving vaccine shot
Article
Bacterial or Viral Infection
Video
 
How To Calm Your Cough
Quiz
Sore Throat
Slideshow
 

WebMD Special Sections