Understanding Common Cold Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 02, 2024
7 min read

It's hard to get through a year without getting a cold. That's because it spreads very easily. You might get the cold virus from someone sneezing or coughing and releasing droplets in the air near you. Or you might get it from touching a person with a cold or handling an object they touched and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. About 200 different viruses can spread the common cold, which makes it hard to create a vaccine for it. The most common cold virus is the rhinovirus.

Another name for the common cold is the head cold because most of the symptoms happen in your head, such as sneezing and coughing. The medical term for the common cold is upper respiratory tract infection or upper respiratory infection (URI).

Except in newborns, colds themselves are not dangerous. They usually go away in 4 to 10 days without any special medicine. Unfortunately, colds do wear down your body's resistance, making you more prone to bacterial infections.

There are three stages of a cold: early, active, and late.

Colds usually start 1-3 days after a virus enters the body. These germs often enter through the nose or mouth and cause your pharynx (a tube at the back of your throat) to become inflamed and sore. That's why the first signs of a cold are often a sore throat or a throat tickle. Your throat inflammation means your white blood cells are rushing to your throat to try and fight off the infection.

You might also have:

  • A hoarse voice
  • Scratchy throat
  • Mild body aches
  • Tiredness

Days 4-7 are the days you'll probably feel your worst. At this stage, you might have all the symptoms of the early stage of a cold plus the following:

  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • White, green, or yellow mucus in your nose 
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Watery eyes 
  • Throat drainage

Usually, there's no fever; in fact, fever and more severe symptoms may indicate that you have the flu rather than a cold.

Can a common cold cause cold sores?

Not directly. Cold sores are mostly caused by the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), a different virus from the cold or flu virus. Once you have HSV-1 inside you, cold sores can appear when triggered by stress, exposure to the sun, changing hormone levels (from having your period), or having an illness such as a cold. Cold sore symptoms include small blisters around your mouth, called fever blisters. Cold sores are very contagious. You can get them from kissing, sharing eating utensils or sharing towels.

From days 8-10, you're entering the late stage of your cold. Your runny nose dries up and you start to feel better. Your sore throat is usually gone.

However, your cough might continue, especially at night, until the end of the second week of your illness. This is because when you lie down, mucus drains into your throat, irritating it and causing you to cough.

If your symptoms aren't improving or getting worse after 2 weeks, see your doctor because your cold might have turned into something more serious.


Unlike adults, most babies start off their colds with a fever, usually in the range of 101 to 102 F. Other signs that your baby has a cold include:

  • A runny nose (snot starts out clear but can change to white, yellow, or green)
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • More drooling because of sore throat 
  • Cough
  • Slightly swollen glands
  • Irritability/fussiness

It's common for an infant to get a cold. In fact, healthy infants may get six colds in their first year of life, as there are so many cold viruses out there. Most of the time, it's not serious. But you should call your doctor or 911 right away if any of the following happens:

  • Fever in a baby less than 3 months old, or a fever higher than 104 F
  • Trouble breathing (your baby is struggling to breathe, breathing fast, or ribs are pulling in with each breath)
  • Lips or face is turning blue
  • Your baby seems very sick

Not sure whether you have a cold or flu? One big difference is that you usually get fever and body aches with flu, while these are less likely with a cold. Colds tend to be milder than flu, too. Here are some other ways to tell the two illnesses apart, from the CDC.

 COLD or FLU? 
Signs & SymptomsColdFlu
Symptom OnsetGradualSudden
ChillsUncommonFairly common
Fatigue, weaknessSometimesUsual
Chest discomfort, CoughMild to moderateCommon
Stuffy NoseCommonSometimes
Sore ThroatCommonSometimes


 Severe cold symptoms in adults include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Ear pain
  • Muscle aches
  • Feeling of pressure in face and ears (sinus pressure)
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Severe vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Swollen glands (around jaw and neck)

A cold virus can allow other infections to enter the body. If your cold is severe, you may end up getting the following complications:

  • Sinus infection
  • Ear infection
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • A persistent cough that might last weeks or months

If you have asthma, chronic (ongoing) bronchitis, or emphysema, you're more likely to get a sinus infection with an ongoing cough from a cold. Community-acquired pneumonias can start as a common cold. If symptoms get worse rather than better after 3-7 days, you may have a bacterial infection. These symptoms can be caused by a cold virus other than a rhinovirus.

There isn't any test to tell you your cold is gone. But you can know your cold is improving if the following signs are happening:

  • You're sneezing less.
  • Your mucus is clear rather than yellow or green.
  • You feel less congested.
  • Your cough is easing.
  • Your sore throat is gone.
  • You're less tired and feel more energetic.

How long do symptoms of a common cold last?

Your cold will usually get better on its own in about 7-10 days, though you could have some symptoms for as long as 2 weeks. Most products such as cold medicines only relieve symptoms but don't make your cold go away any faster.

You can usually treat a cold at home. But you may need to contact your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms have lasted more than 2 weeks.
  • Your throat hurts and you have trouble swallowing.
  • You have a sore throat for more than 2 or 3 days, particularly if it seems to be worsening.
  • You have an earache .
  • You have a stiff neck or sensitivity to bright lights.
  • Your temperature is 102 F or higher.
  • Your cold symptoms worsen after the third day; you may have a secondary bacterial infection
  • You have trouble breathing or are wheezing.
  • You have severe sinus pain in your face or forehead, such as a sinus headache.
  • You have swollen glands in your neck or jaw.
  • You have a flare-up of a lung problem, such as asthma.

You'll also want to call your doctor if:

Or if your child has:

  • A fever over 103 F
  • A fever lasting for more than 3 days
  • Trouble breathing or is wheezing
  • A bluish skin color
  • An earache
  • Symptoms improve but return with a fever or worsening cough
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty waking up or irritability

Your cold should go away on its own, but if it's nasty enough, seek medical attention. Your doctor likely will examine your throat, lungs, and ears. If your doctor suspects strep throat, they will take a culture and determine if you have an infection and may need antibiotics. If they suspect pneumonia, you will need a chest X-ray. Coughing, sneezing, and a sore throat should go away within 1-2 weeks. If it's longer than that, see your doctor.

How do you quickly get rid of a cold?

There isn't a way to quickly cure a cold; it just has to run its course. Antibiotics don't usually help as almost all colds are caused by viruses. Some people swear that taking large doses of vitamin C or supplements containing vitamin C, zinc, echinacea, and other herbs and minerals will stop a cold or shorten it. Studies are mixed on whether these nutrients make a difference; in the studies where they did show benefits, they shortened colds only by a day or two. Still, if you want to try, it can't hurt. Just make sure you do your megadosing at the first sign of a throat tickle or when you've been around someone who's been sneezing but before you have symptoms.

How long does a cold usually last?

It typically lasts 7 to 10 days, though 2 weeks is not unusual.

What is the best medicine for a cold?

Colds have multiple symptoms, so you usually need multiple products for treatment. You might need an antihistamine to dry up your runny nose, a pain reliever for your headache and body aches, and a cough medicine for your cough. Be careful with taking multisymptom cold medicines, especially if you're using, say, a pain reliever at the same time. You don't want to overdose on all those drugs. Ease your sore throat by gargling with warm salt water. Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of water, and have some chicken soup. The steam clears your nostrils, while the liquid provides hydration and has a lot of nutrition.