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The Step-By-Step Stages of a Cold—Plus How to Recover Fast

By Karla Walsh

Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images

Ever wish you could tell that cold to just chill out? The average American is afflicted with two or three colds per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). While they're frustratingly common—and contagious—this condition is a bit like a snowflake. No two are alike.

"There are no official stages of a cold. Each is individual and follows its own path. Some last for hours, others for days or even weeks," says Adam Splaver, M.D., a cardiologist in Hollywood, FL.

But there are some general trends in cold symptoms, timelines, and treatment methods. From "how long does a cold last?" to "how do I feel better faster?" we spoke to medical experts for a complete guide to (fighting back against) the common cold.

How do I catch a cold, and what are the most common cold symptoms?

As many as half of all colds have an undetermined viral cause. Although as many as 200 viruses can trigger a cold, the most common culprits are strains of the rhinovirus. It's the root cause for 24 to 52 percent of colds, according to research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Coronavirus is another strain that's fairly common among adults in winter and early spring.

"Colds can be caused by many different viruses and can't be cured with antibiotics. Contrary to some popular lore, they don't turn into bacterial infections and don't lead to sinus infections, pneumonia, or strep throat," says Christopher McNulty, D.O., the urgent care medical director for DaVita Medical Group in Colorado Springs, CO.

It can be tricky to tell the difference between a cold and the flu, since they tend to strike at about the same time of year—and your body doesn't have an alert when the influenza virus enters. (If only!) The CDC says that flu symptoms are typically more severe, however, and may include chills and more extreme fatigue. (Related: Flu, Cold, or Winter Allergies: What's Taking You Down?)

Both colds and flu viruses are spread by hand-to-hand contact with a virus or by breathing in air that's been contaminated by droplets laced with the virus. So when an infected individual blows her nose, coughs or sneezes, then touches a doorknob or restaurant menu, for example, you can pick up the same virus. Those hardy rhinoviruses can hang on for about two days, continuing to infect more people who touch the same object.

From there, cold symptoms tend to pop up two or three days after the virus enters your body.

"A cold can start as a tickle in your nose, a scratchy throat, a subtle cough, a bothersome headache, or a feeling of utter exhaustion. The virus affects your mucosa, the linings of your airways, and alerts your immune system that something big is about to go down. Your immune system starts mounting an attack on these unwanted pests," says Dr. Splaver.

Chemicals are secreted that activate the immune response, which leads to "the runny nose, cough, and all-too-pervasive snot and phlegm," he adds.

While they can be pesky, remember that "many of the cold symptoms we experience are reactions the body takes to help itself get healthy again," says Gustavo Ferrer, M.D., program director of the Aventura Pulmonary and Critical Care Fellowship in Aventura, FL. "Congestion and mucus production stop the foreign invaders, coughing and sneezing gets the contaminants out, and a fever helps certain immune cells function better."

How long does a cold last, and what are the stages of a cold?

"How long the symptoms take to manifest, as well as how long they last, varies from person to person, depending on how well an individual takes care of oneself. Not all symptoms manifest in everyone. Some people are sick for a day, while others have a cold for a week or more, Dr. McNulty says. (So, in other words, you're not imagining things! Your cold might actually be worse than everyone else's.)

So while cold length, cold symptoms, and other factors can vary, the stages of a cold generally play out like this, explains Dr. McNulty:

2 to 3 Days After Infection: The Climb

The virus infects the mucous membranes in the upper respiratory tract, which stimulates inflammation in the form of heat, redness, pain, and swelling. You may notice more congestion and coughing as the body produces more mucus to protect the surface of the respiratory tract. This is also when you're most contagious, so stay home from work or school and avoid large crowds, if possible.

4 to 6 Days After Infection: The Mountain Top

Cold symptoms move up to the nose. Swelling of the mucous membranes in the nose and sinuses intensifies. Blood vessels dilate, bringing white blood cells into the area to fight the infection. You may notice more nasal drainage or swelling, plus sneezing. Additional symptoms include a sore throat (caused by excess mucus draining down the throat), low-grade fever, dull headache, dry cough, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. As the excess mucus works its way through the body, you may find some collecting in the ear tubes, slightly disrupting your hearing.

7 to 10 Days After Infection: The Descent

By the time you reach the final stages of a cold, antibodies are overpowering the virus and symptoms should begin to tame. You may still detect some minor congestion or fatigue. If cold symptoms persist beyond 10 days, see your doctor.

Are there any tricks to recover from a cold more quickly?

Mom's Rx of chicken soup and rest was—and is—wise, Dr. McNulty says.

"Treating symptoms alone does not shorten the course of [any] disease. An insufficient amount of research has been done on over-the-counter products to determine if they are effective in reducing the length and severity of a cold," he says. "What's most important is to rest, hydrate, and eat nutritious foods." (Related: How to Get Rid of a Cold Lighting Fast)

Zinc (found in products such as Zicam), elderberries, aged garlic, and vitamins C and D have been proven in a few studies to help treat cold symptoms, but research is limited and none actually help prevent or fix the viral condition.

And since the viral causes vary, it's unlikely we'll have a cold vaccine any time soon, Dr. Splaver adds, "so for the time being, we just have to grin, bear it, and cough it out. It will eventually go away."

As you wait it out, Dr. Ferrer is a big proponent of a little tidy-up treatment. "Cleaning your nose and sinuses—the main entryways when germs invade the body—can assist in the natural defenses. A natural nasal spray with xylitol, such as Xlear Sinus Care, washes the nose and opens the airway from congestion without the uncomfortable burning sensation people experience with saline alone. Clinical studies show that xylitol also breaks up bacterial colonies and prevents bacteria from sticking to tissue, allowing the body to wash them out effectively," Dr. Ferrer says. (Here, 10 home remedies to fight back against cold symptoms and feel better fast.)

How can I prevent a cold next time?

Dr. Ferrer has a top five list for how to keep future colds at bay. (Here, more tips on how to avoid getting sick during cold and flu season.)

Above all else, remember that "sharing is not caring when it comes to colds," Dr. Splaver says. "It's best to be courteous when you are sick and refrain from shaking hands and spreading the love. Stay at home for a day or two. It does your body good and keeps the virus from spreading."

  1. Wash your hands often throughout the day, especially in public places.

  2. Drink plenty of water, since it's a crucial factor to aid in the body's defense tactics.

  3. Eat a healthy diet full of protective vitamins and nutrients. These 12 foods are proven to boost your immune system.

  4. Avoid big crowds if there are a high number of flu cases in your area.

  5. Cough and sneeze hygienically into a tissue, then throw it away. Or cough and sneeze into your upper shirt sleeve to completely cover your mouth and nose.