Here's How Long a Cold Actually Lasts, According to Experts


Having a cold is annoying. Once that runny, stuffy nose; headache; or cough starts, your first question is probably, When is this going to end?

Unfortunately, it might not be as soon as you'd hope. Here's how long a cold typically lasts, whether there's anyway to shorten the duration of your cold, and when you should see a doctor.

How Long Does a Cold Last? Here’s How Many Days You Can Expect to Experience Symptoms , Cropped shot of a young woman blowing her nose into a tissue How Long Does a Cold Last? Here’s How Many Days You Can Expect to Experience Symptoms , Cropped shot of a young woman blowing her nose into a tissue . Most of the time, post-viral syndrome is going to take the form of a cough. And that cough can stick around for up to an additional three to four weeks—though most people are completely back to their old self in two weeks, Daniel Merenstein, MD, director of family medicine research at Georgetown University Medical Center, tells Health.

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At what point should you be concerned with how long your cold is lasting?

If you've been coughing for three or so weeks after recovering from your cold, you might start to wonder, Is there something else wrong with me? Is this more than a cold? "The answer is probably not," Dr. Wasylyshyn says. A cold that lasts 14 days or a lingering cough that lasts up to a month shouldn't worry you. It's at or past that four-week mark of your post-viral syndrome where you should start to consider getting checked by a doctor.

If his patient has had a lingering cough for a month and doesn't seem to be letting up, Dr. Wasylyshyn will look for potential causes other than a cold. "I'm going to want to do a chest X-ray to make sure there's not a mass there. I may consider pulmonary function tests to see if there's underlying COPD or asthma," he says. "So four weeks isn't the limit, but it's where I would want to do more testing."

And that extra testing at the four-week mark goes for everybody—even if you are an otherwise healthy 20-something-year-old. Other providers might wait even longer before calling for additional tests, with Dr. Merenstein saying that while at four weeks he might start to consider underlying causes, it'd be closer to six weeks of a lingering cough when he'd begin to worry and order an X-ray scan.

When should you see a doctor?

Aside from a cough that has been lingering for over a month, you'll also want to go to the doctor if you experience shortness of breath or a fever over 101 degrees at any point of your illness, according to Dr. Merenstein. These both might be signs of something more than a cold.

You'll also want to schedule a visit with your doctor if your symptoms are getting worse over the course of your sickness, Dr. Wasylyshyn says. Colds usually start with a tickle in the throat. From there, they progress over the next couple days to a little bit of sinus congestion, to a cough, and then to just a general feeling of being unwell. Colds typically peak at day two or three. After that, symptoms stay the same and then improve. If symptoms instead continue to worsen, that could be a red flag that what you're dealing with is more than a cold.

The key with colds is that they are slow moving. If you're fine at dinner, and then by 9 p.m. you have fevers and chills, that's likely not a cold—think more so along the lines of flu, Dr. Merenstein says.

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Does the longer a cold lasts mean the worse the cold is?

No, at least not in the sense that it was a more virulent virus, according to Dr. Wasylyshyn. So yes, it stinks to have to deal with a cold for 14 days as compared to five. But just because it's longer doesn't mean that your cold was more severe.

How long a cold lasts really just depends on your body's response to it. For instance, someone who's immunocompromised might have a cold that lingers longer, according to Dr. Merenstein.

A cold can last pretty long. Do you have to stay home from work that whole time?

If you're in that post-viral syndrome stage, you're probably not contagious anymore, according to Dr. Wasylyshyn. But if you're still in that stuffy nose, sneezy, full-blown cold period, you should assume you're contagious. "That does not necessarily mean stay home," though, he says. "It's possible to responsibly go to work with a cold."

That's especially true in 2021, when we're already taking precautions against COVID-19. Wearing a mask will cut down on cold transmission. Keeping up with hand hygiene in the office is key, too—especially if any mucus from your nose or throat have touched your hands. That "would be the way to limit spread without having to totally disrupt everybody's life with having to stay home with a cold," Dr. Wasylyshyn says.

But before returning to work, make sure you test negative for COVID since the symptoms for mild COVID and cold are so similar.

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Can you shorten a cold’s duration?

Research isn't clear on that. There's been some studies that show if you take echinacea, zinc, or probiotics right at the start of your cold that that could shorten your cold, but the results aren't super clear, Dr. Merenstein says.

Instead, try taking medicine like Tylenol or Robitussin. They won't actually make your cold shorter, but they can help make you feel better in the short-term. And because a lot of cold symptoms—like runny nose and postnasal drip—are generated from the sinuses, Dr. Wasylyshyn's advice to his patients who are dealing with a cold is to focus on clearing those up. That means using decongestants like Sudafed or Afrin. Dr. Wasylyshyn says he personally swears by a neti pot to stop his colds in their tracks. But medicine's effects vary person to person, and what works for you might not work for someone else, and vice versa.

Why does it seem like your child’s cold never goes away?

OK, so maybe you go back to feeling totally fine 10 days after your cold started. But if you have kids under 6, you might feel as though their colds last longer—as if they just always have a cold. And according to Dr. Wasylyshyn, that's a pretty normal feeling for parents to have. Why? Well, the average child who is under 6 has six to eight colds per year. And those colds—that last up to 14 days—tend to be clustered between September and April. That works out to kids having one cold per month, which means that from September to April, the average child is sick with a cold half of the time.

"I just like to be able to reassure parents, if you feel like half of the time your kid is sick like, yup, your kid's normal. That's sort of the way of the world. That's their immune system learning the cold, and we don't need to worry that there's something insidious going on," Dr. Wasylyshyn says.

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