The common cold is an upper respiratory tract infection that can be caused by one of more than 200 viruses. For most people, a cold causes mild symptoms like sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, and a sore throat. The symptoms tend to develop gradually after the initial infection and can last for up to two weeks.
On average, adults have two to three colds a year. Children can have six to 10 colds a year. When you or a loved one develops any bothersome symptoms, you might wonder whether they are the result of yet another cold.
Common cold symptoms can vary a bit depending on the person and the specific virus behind the cold. But typically, you can expect to experience:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Post-nasal drip (when mucus runs down the back of your throat)
- General feeling of being unwell
A sore throat is often the first sign of a cold. A runny or stuffy nose soon follow.
Cold symptoms usually peak on the second or third day. During this time, your mucus will be clear as it tries to get rid of the virus. Over the rest of course of the cold, the mucus may change to white, yellow, or green.
The worst of a cold is usually over within a week. Some symptoms, such as cough, can take two to three weeks to completely go away.
A cold can have some overlapping symptoms of the flu—an infection also caused by a virus. But cold symptoms tend to be milder and develop at a slower rate.
Less Common Symptoms
In addition to the signature signs of a cold, some people may also experience the following symptoms with a cold:
- Body aches
- Fatigue or weakness
- Watery eyes
- Loss of appetite
Some of these symptoms can overlap with allergies or viral illnesses like COVID-19, so if you have any doubts about it being a case of the common cold, you can have a healthcare provider determine it for you.
Rarely, the common cold might bring on fever or headache.
These rare symptoms—along with those that are less common—can closely mirror symptoms of a flu virus, which can sometimes make it a bit tricky to tell the difference. A healthcare provider can help make the correct diagnosis.
Symptoms in Children
Children tend to have more colds a year than adults, especially during the fall and winter months.
While common cold symptoms in younger people will look similar to how the virus manifests in adults, there are a couple key signs to watch for if you have little ones around:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty swallowing due to a sore throat
- Swollen throat glands
In addition, some research has shown that a runny nose may be the most prevalent symptom in children. And difficulty sleeping during a cold may be more evident in children than adults.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
For most otherwise healthy adults, common colds aren't usually a cause for concern and don't normally require a trip to the healthcare provider's office. If you're fairly certain you have a cold, it's typically a safe course of action to sit tight and recover at home by resting, staying hydrated, and taking over-the-counter cold medications as needed.
But during this time, keep a close eye on the following symptoms and situations—and seek medical care if you're experiencing:
- Trouble breathing, fast breathing, or shortness of breath
- A high fever or fever that lasts longer than four days
- Symptoms that seem to improve and then return or get worse
- Symptoms that last more than 10 days without getting better
This is particularly important for people who may be more likely to experience a severe illness or complications, including babies and young children, adults 65 or older, and people with chronic health conditions.
A Quick Review
The most common symptoms of a common cold are a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and coughing. Less common symptoms include chills and aches. Rare symptoms are fever and headache. Children with a cold can have many of the same symptoms as adults. Children may also be fussy or have trouble swallowing their food due to a sore throat. While the viral illness tends to be mild and clear up within 10 days, check with a healthcare provider if your symptoms are severe, unusual, or last longer than they should.
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