Why colds can last so darn long
In the age of COVID-19, the common cold seems so mundane. Do you feel lousy? Sure. But you’ve had colds before, so you know the drill. The sneezing, runny nose, coughing and congestion are right out of the rhinovirus playbook.
Sometimes though, those symptoms seem to stick around longer than usual. Is it a plain old cold or something more serious? As we head into spring sniffle season, here’s the lowdown on what to expect, how to get relief, and what to do if you’re not getting better.
The life cycle of the common cold
Most people recover from a cold in 7 to 10 days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates. By the time symptoms show up — runny nose, sore throat, headache and more — you’ve probably had the virus in your body for a couple of days, says Monjur Alam, MD, a family physician with UC San Diego Health in California.
Here’s how a typical cold runs its course:
Days 1–2: “Symptoms of a cold appear gradually,” says Tony Yuan, MD, medical director at the telemedicine platform Doctor On Demand. “In the early stage, you may have a mild runny nose and a sore or scratchy throat.”
Days 3–6: The third day tends to usher in the worst part of a cold, Dr. Yuan says. That means more of those classic cold symptoms, such as sneezing, coughing, fatigue and mild body aches.
Days 7–10: Once you’re at the week mark, the worst should be over. During this time, symptoms will likely start subsiding until you’re back to your old self, Dr. Alam says. If you have another condition such as asthma, you’re more likely to be on the longer end of this range, and the symptoms may linger a little longer.
How to relieve cold symptoms
There is no cure for a cold, says Dr. Yuan. To take the edge off that sad fact, your local drugstore has plenty of options for soothing your symptoms while your body rides out the virus. How do you choose the best one?
Over-the-counter (OTC) cold remedies usually contain multiple ingredients to treat multiple symptoms at once, says Dr. Yuan. These can include a pain reliever (ibuprofen or acetaminophen), a decongestant (phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine) and a cough suppressant (dextromethorphan).
“If you have only 1 or 2 cold symptoms, consider getting a medication that contains only 1 or 2 ingredients to treat your specific symptoms,” Dr. Yuan says. “Avoid taking multiple OTC medications at the same time. They may contain overlapping ingredients, which can lead to an accidental overdose.”
Remember, always read the labels and use OTC medications as directed.
Beyond tried-and-true OTC meds, there are other things you can and should do from home to feel better. Top of the list is lots of rest and lots of fluids, says Dr. Yuan. Here are some other effective remedies:
- Drink tea with honey at bedtime to suppress a cough.
- Gargle with warm salt water to ease a sore throat.
- Run hot water and inhale the steam to soothe airways.
- Suck on throat lozenges to ease a sore throat or cough.
- Use a saline nasal spray to help relieve nasal congestion.
When to call a doctor
If your cold symptoms last longer than the typical 10 days, or if they get worse instead of better around the 7-to-10-day mark, it’s a wise move to call your doctor, says Dr. Yuan. Same goes if your symptoms are severe or unusual. Another red flag: If your symptoms seem to be getting better at first, but then get worse again. “That may indicate it’s turning into a more complicated condition, such as a lung or sinus infection,” he says.
It’s these kinds of secondary infections that can prolong your symptoms. When sinus or lung infections do occur after a cold, they can be caused by bacteria, which will likely need to be treated with antibiotics.
Is it a cold — or something else?
The common cold, the flu and COVID-19 are all caused by respiratory viruses. Given the pandemic, it’s only natural to wonder if you have something serious when the sniffles set in.
To tell the difference between a cold and the flu, here are a few rules of thumb: A cold tends to come on gradually, there’s no high-grade fever, and symptoms are milder than those of the flu, says Dr. Alam. The flu typically hits more suddenly and with more intense symptoms, including high fever and chills.
As for COVID-19, one of the signature symptom doctors look for is loss of the ability to taste or smell. “Under the current circumstances, if someone has new-onset loss of taste or smell, it is COVID-19 until proven otherwise,” Dr. Alam says.
Of course, your taste and smell can also be impaired by a cold, especially if you’re congested. Here are a few key differences: With COVID-19, you may lose your sense of smell even without having a blocked or runny nose, and the losses may be more severe, according to a recent study in the journal Rhinology.
That said, colds, flu and even COVID-19 can cause different symptoms in different people. So if you’re in doubt, it’s always best to give your doctor a call. And as with any respiratory virus, you should take steps to prevent spreading it to others. That means washing your hands regularly, staying home when you’re sick, and following current CDC pandemic guidelines, such as wearing a face mask and social distancing.
Getting vaccinated for seasonal flu is more important than ever, say experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But if you’re in line for a COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC also cautions that you shouldn’t get vaccinated for both flu and COVID-19 at the same time. A COVID-19 vaccine should be given alone, with at least 14 days either before or after any other vaccines. That’s mainly because of limited information. This recommendation may change as more information becomes available. Your health care provider can help you decide the best vaccination schedule for you and your family.