From Day 1 to 10, these are the stages of a cold – and a guide to when it will be over

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From Day 1 to 10, these are the stages of a coldWestend61 - Getty Images

Noticed that half of the people you work with have come down with some form of general grogginess, sneezing or runny nose? Like you're no doubt aware, cold season is very much here – and with it, your questions about just how long the annoying thing will plague you for.

Of course, your symptoms could be COVID-19, rather than the common cold. Read the latest NHS guidance on what to do if you think you could have the virus, here.

So, let's get to it. Just how long do the stages of a cold last—and when should you seek medical advice? WH asked pharmacist Raj Patel what you should expect during the stages of a cold and exactly how to minimise the common cold stages, day-by-day.

How do cold symptoms differ from flu symptoms?

So you think you feel those groggy symptoms coming on, but can’t figure out whether it’s a cold or the full-blown flu? Watch out for the following tell tale signs that indicate it is flu that you're dealing with:

  • High fever: You have a high temperature above 39°C that does not come down even if you take ibuprofen and/or paracetamol (remember, this is also a COVID symptom)

  • Effect on day to day life: You are confused or disoriented

  • Pain: You notice a sharp pain in your chest

  • Breathing: You are experiencing difficulty in breathing

  • Fluids: You cough up blood-stained phlegm (thick mucus)

  • Swollen glands: You notice a swelling of the glands in your neck and/or armpits

  • Sore muscles: Everything starts to ache

  • Loss of appetite: You won't fancy eating or drinking much

  • Duration: Your symptoms last longer than 3 weeks

How long should a cold last?

There's not one precise answer for this, as everyone is unique. However, there is a common thread between symptoms and how long they go on. Want to know how many days a cold should last? These common cold stages should help you work out where you are in the life cycle of your cold.

The stages of a cold:

Days 1-2

Days one to two and you don’t even think to Google ‘Common Cold stages’, as you feel absolutely fine. Essentially, in the first few days of a common cold, there are no symptoms to warn you’ve been infected. But the progression of a cold day by day is coming...

Days 2-3

Come days two and three, you’ll start to feel a bit tired and sneezy, your body may ache and you’ll likely have an odd tickle or soreness in your throat that you just can’t shift. The progression of a cold can be quick, and, if you’re experiencing these symptoms, it looks like you’ve got the bug (literally). Get straight into bed to try to prevent your symptoms progressing onto the next stage… Tea and toast for one.

Days 3-4

Eating dinner? Stop reading now. Days three to four are the part where you’re bunged up and your nose is running like a tap – it’s not nice as the colour changes from clear to thick greenish yellow. Nice.

Whilst progression of a cold day-by-day is hard to pinpoint, Patel advises trying an over-the-counter decongestant to help open up your blocked airways. Warm steam inhalation (like in a hot shower or a good old Vicks VapoRub) can also ease nasal congestion. It can feel like it’ll never break through but clearing your airways can ultimately help prevent a sinus infection.

Days 4-6

Common cold symptoms mean that, because of your snotty situation, come days four to six you may also develop a mild cough. Due to inflammation around the airways, the cough may persist after your other symptoms are long gone. Annoying, but, don’t worry – because by this stage, your cold should be on its way out.

Days 7-10

Day seven and it might just be time to call off that doctor's appointment. Common colds usually last around 7-10 days with most cold sufferers getting better with rest and over-the-counter remedies, says Patel.

The good news? Around two weeks after the infection you will start to produce antibodies that prevent you from catching that particular cold virus again.

The bad news? According to research on behalf of the Treat Yourself Better Without Antibiotics campaign, there are around another 199 strains of cold virus, so you can pick up another one that you haven't had yet – and that could happen straight away—so keep the life cycle of a cold in mind, just in case.

How long should a cold last before you go to the doctor?

If you find yourself googling 'can a cold last three weeks?' it might be time to book that GP appointment after all. There are lots of reasons why your cold might be clinging on for longer, including:

  • You're not getting enough rest

  • Stress

  • Not drinking enough water

Your doctor will able to advise you on the best medications to take for a cold, and check that your illness isn't down to something else.

Do cold symptoms get worse at night?

If you feel like your cold gets worse at night, you're not imagining it. A common cold can make it difficult to sleep. If you're bunged up and congested, prop your head up with a few more pillows. This will help any mucus drain, preventing a build-up in the back of your throat or in your sinuses.

How to prevent a cold, in the first place

The NHS advises that there are ways that you can prevent a cold. These include:

  • Regularly washing your hands

  • Do not reuse tissues after you’ve used them

  • Bin all used tissues straight away

  • Eat well & exercise

  • Avoiding touching your nose or eyes

  • Do not share towels or household items (like cups) with someone who has a cold

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