How long a cold typically lasts and when you should see a doctor

Your cold will likely last for a week or so, though the exact timeline may differ depending on your age and health.

Your cold will likely last for a week or so, though the exact timeline may differ depending on your age and health.
Cecilie Arcurs/Getty Images

There are more than 200 viruses that can cause the common cold. That might help explain why many adults contract two to three colds each year, mostly by coming into contact with someone who’s already infected.

Whether you inhaled infectious particles from someone’s sneeze or you didn’t wash your hands after touching an infected surface, when you catch a cold you’re facing at least a week of misery.

How long a cold typically lasts and what symptoms to expect

Here’s a timeline of what you can expect when you have a cold:

  • Day 1-2: Sneezing and an itchy throat are the first symptoms.
  • Day 3-4: As your symptoms approach their peak, your nose will start to run and you may experience some congestion.
  • Day 5-7: By now the severity of your symptoms has peaked, and it’s likely the worst you’ll feel. You may even run a fever or get the chills.
  • Day 8-10: A cough is a sign that your cold is wrapping up. You may still feel congested and fatigued for the final days of illness, but you’re approaching the light at the end of the tunnel.

Now, this is a typical timeline, but it’s important to know that not everyone experiences a cold in the same way.

“Different people tend to have different susceptibilities; some tend to develop more symptoms in sinuses, lungs, or ears,” Timothy Laird, MD, a family physician, tells Insider. “Groups with weaker immune systems – children, pregnant women, and the elderly – can have more severe symptoms and potentially longer courses.”

When you should see a doctor about your cold

Though it may feel like it, the common cold isn’t serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit. With some rest and plenty of fluids, your immune system can kick the virus without medication.

You should, however, see a doctor if symptoms get worse or change to something more severe after 10 days. For example, diarrhea, uncontrollable vomiting, or shortness of breath are a sign that you should seek medical care.

Laird also warns of more serious infections, such as influenza and pneumonia, which have similar symptoms and can be mistaken for a cold.

“Severe pain in an ear indicating an ear infection, severe chest symptoms, or cough in the absence of head-and-sinus symptoms can be indications for getting medical attention,” Laird says.

People who are most at risk for these types of complications are infants, children, the elderly, and people with a compromised immune system.

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