Understanding Common Cold -- Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on May 06, 2023
2 min read

Symptoms of a cold can be felt about 1-4 days after catching a cold virus. They start with a burning feeling in the nose or throat, followed by sneezing, a runny nose, and a feeling of being tired and unwell. This is the period when you are most contagious -- you can pass the cold to others -- so it's best to stay home and rest.

For the first few days, the nose teems with watery nasal secretions. Later, these become thicker and yellower or greener. You may get a mild cough. It won't get much worse, but it is likely to last into the second week of your illness. If you suffer from chronic bronchitis or asthma, a cold will make it worse.

Because the common cold weakens your immune system, it can increase the risk of a bacterial superinfection of your sinuses, inner ear, or lungs. Community-acquired pneumonias can start as a common cold. If symptoms get worse, rather than better, after 3-7 days, you may have acquired a bacterial infection. These symptoms can also be caused by a cold virus other than a rhinovirus.

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

Cold symptoms typically last for about 3 days. At that point the worst is over, but you may feel congested for a week or more.

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 susceptible to bacterial infections.

If your cold is 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.

  • You notice an inability to swallow
  • 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
  • You're pregnant or nursing
  • Your newborn or infant has cold symptoms
  • Your throat hurts and your temperature is 101 degrees F or higher
  • Your cold symptoms worsen after the third day; you may have a secondary bacterial infection