How long does a cold last and when will you start to feel better?

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Can’t shake that nasty cold? Here’s how long a cold typically lasts and when to see your doctor.

By Dr Roger Henderson

Can’t shake off that nasty cold? From a sore throat to a stuffy nose and a headache, a lingering cold can make you feel miserable. If your symptoms just won’t shift and your cold is making it hard for you to go about your daily life, you may be wondering: how long does a cold last?

While there is no cure for the common cold, there tends to be three separate stages to recovery. Being able to recognise which stage of the cold you are currently in may help you treat your symptoms and also work out how long it will be until you fully recover.

We spoke to Dr Roger Henderson about how long it typically takes to get over a cold for adults and children, as well as tips on how to sidestep the sniffles:

How long does a cold last?

A cold is a viral infection, of which there are over 200 different types of viruses. Most adults will catch around four colds every year, with children having more, often during the winter months.

If your cold symptoms just won’t budge and you still feel dreadful after what feels like weeks, you’d be forgiven for assuming your runny nose will never end. The good new is colds can usually be treated at home without seeing a GP, and you should feel better in a week or so. The average length of a cold is between 7 to 10 days in both adults and children and usually involves three phases:

  • Day 1-2 of the common cold

Typically, the symptoms of a cold start with a sore throat and a headache. You might also experience fatigue and a runny or blocked nose. Symptoms are usually mild for the first few days of a cold, before peaking over the following few days.

  • Day 2-4 of the common cold

After a couple of days the cold will reach a peak, with a cough usually starting around the fourth day when the nasal symptoms start to ease, The second stage is when you are most likely to feel quite rotten, with symptoms including aches, pains, coughing, tiredness and congestion.

  • Day 7-10 of the common cold

By 7–10 days you should start to feel a bit better and your symptoms should be easing up. However, some cold symptoms can linger for up to 14 days including a cough and either a blocked or runny nose. If your symptoms persist beyond 14 days and you still feel really unwell with no improvement, speak to your GP.

How to treat a common cold

Unfortunately there are no medicines of proven benefit for treating the common cold, and antibiotics do not alter its outcome. Your body will clear the cold virus on its own, so treatment is aimed at providing relief of symptoms and making you feel better while this is happening. To treat your cold at home try the following tips:

️ Try over-the-counter medicines

There is a range of over-the-counter products that can be given to children over the age of two if required to help with symptoms such as a cough. Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

️ Keep hydrated

It is important to have an adequate fluid intake when suffering from a cold to keep well hydrated, and decongestants can provide short-term relief of a blocked nose but these should only be used for a day or two and never long-term.

️ Take paracetamol

Paracetamol is an effective painkiller and can be used to reduce a fever in both adults and children.

️ Get plenty of rest

One of the simplest things you can do to help your body fight infection is to rest. You are more likely to pick up an infection when you are stressed or overtired, so take things easy and keep warm to speed up recovery.

️ Drink honey and lemon

Squeezing the juice of a lemon into hot water then adding a spoonful of honey is a good natural remedy and a common go-to when it comes to soothing sore throats and a runny nose.

️ Gargle salt water

To clear viruses and bacteria away from the back of the throat try gargling with salt water to ease a sore throat. Saline nasal drops or spray (salt water) is also an effective way to clear mucus from the nose.

️ Use steam

Steaming can help to clear a blocked nose, or alternatively try decongestants if steaming does not help.

️ Stock up on vitamin C and echinacea

Eat plenty of fresh fruit, particularly citrus fruits which contain vitamin C. There is some evidence that vitamin C may reduce the duration of a cold and that using echinacea preparations may improve cold symptoms.

When to see a doctor for a cold

While a common cold can usually be treated at home, you should see your doctor if any of the following occurs:

  • Your symptoms do not improve after three weeks.
  • Your symptoms get suddenly worse.
  • Your temperature is very highor you feel hot and shivery.
  • You’re concerned about your child’s symptoms.
  • You’re finding it hard to breatheor develop chest pain.
  • You have a long-term medical condition (eg diabetes, or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease).
  • You have a weakened immune system (eg if you’re having chemotherapy).

When to take your child to the doctor

If your child is lethargic or behaves out of character, call the doctor. Symptoms to look out for that may mean your child has more than just a cold include:

  • If your child has a temperatureover 38ºC (101.3ºF) for more than three days.
  • If their symptoms last longer than 10 days or suddenly get worse.
  • If medicines do not improve their symptoms.
  • If your child will not be comforted.
  • If they feel hot and shivery, they may have a chest infection.
  • If they experience breathing problems such as wheezing, fast breathing or difficulty breathing.
  • If they have a persistent cough it could be a sign of asthma.

How to prevent a cold from spreading

The transmission of both colds and flu is either by droplet infection from coughing and sneezing, or by direct nasal or eye contact with hands carrying the virus.

Simple measures to prevent both catching and spreading colds and flu include:

✔️ Wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap.

✔️ Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow rather than your hands or the atmosphere.

✔️ Use tissues to collect germs when you sneeze or cough and bin them straightaway.

✔️ Try not to touch your face, especially if you have been near someone with a cold.

✔️ Viruses can survive outside the human body for several hours, so wipe down surfaces to reduce your chances of contracting or spreading a viral infection.

✔️ Avoid close contact with someone suffering from a cold or flu, including not sharing towels and flannels.

✔️ Stay fit and healthy and aim to eat your five-a-day!

✔️ Consider using a cold defence nasal spray at the first sign of a cold.

What if you have coronavirus symptoms

If you have a continuous dry cough accompanied by a high temperature or fever and you experience a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, you could have contracted coronavirus (COVID-19).

The current government advice outlines that you should arrange to have a test for COVID-19 and stay at home and self-isolate for 10 days from when your symptoms start.

Net Doctor

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