Common Cold: Stages and Timeline of Symptom Progression

Reviewed on 11/18/2020

What exactly is a common cold?

The common cold progresses through four different stages.
The common cold progresses through four different stages.

The common cold or viral rhinitis is an upper respiratory infection caused by several types of viruses. It is one of the most common infectious diseases affecting humans. Over 200 types of viruses have been identified that cause the common cold.

There are millions of cases of the common cold each year in the United States. It is one of the main reasons for children missing school and for adults missing work. Children are affected more commonly with a cold than adults who may have an average of two to three colds each year. One can avoid getting a cold by following hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact with sick people, and not touching the face with unwashed hands. Although most people catch a common cold in winter and spring, it is possible to get a cold at any time during the year. There is no evidence whether going out in cold weather can make someone more vulnerable to catch a common cold.

What are the first signs of a common cold?

The initial signs of a common cold are usually a sore throat and runny nose followed by coughing and sneezing. 

Typical symptoms of a common cold include

Symptoms usually go away within 7 to 10 days. In people with weak immunity, asthma or other lung conditions such as bronchitis or pneumonia may develop.

What are the different stages of a common cold?

A common cold may typically follow a certain pattern of progression. The typical pattern, however, may not be experienced by everyone who gets a cold. The typical stages of a common cold are as follows

  • Stage 1 (incubation period): This refers to the stage between the infection by a cold virus and the development of symptoms. This stage may last for one to three days, although for some it may be as short as 10 to 12 hours. 
  • Stage 2 (appearance and progression of symptoms): In this stage, symptoms begin and reach their peak intensity. The symptoms of a cold generally peak in one to three days. Typical cold symptoms include a sore throat, sneezing, cough, a stuffy nose, a runny nose (clear, watery discharge from the nose), feeling sick, headache, body ache and fever. Fever is more commonly seen in children. 
  • Stage 3 (stage of remission): This stage is marked by a decline and eventual fading of cold symptoms. The symptoms usually subside between 3 and 10 days. After two to three days of the appearance of symptoms, the discharge from the nose may appear white, yellow or green. This change in color is normal and does not mean that antibiotics are needed. 
  • Stage 4 (stage of recovery): In this stage, the person feels normal and gets on their feet. There may be some lingering symptoms such as mild cough, stuffy nose and scanty nasal discharge. Such mild symptoms may last up to two weeks in some people. They can be easily managed by appropriate over-the-counter (OTC) medications and a healthy diet.


The common cold is one of the most common illnesses in the world. See Answer

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