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This is the lifecycle of your cold

The common cold is caused by over 200 viruses, the most common of which are rhinovirus. Despite this, cold tend to behave in generally the same fashion. Understanding the different stages of a cold, and the symptoms that are associated with them can help you to determine whether you have a cold or something more serious like the flu.

Knowing how the virus plays out can help you to figure out which treatments might be appropriate to relieve symptoms. It can also assist you in determining whether you need to stay home and rest and if you could be contagious to the people around you.

While everyone has a slightly different experience with the common cold, here are the stages that we tend to see throughout the lifecycle of the virus:

Stage one: days one to three

The first day of your cold starts when you’re exposed to the virus. The incubation period (or the time between becoming infected and developing symptoms) for the common cold is around one to three days, so you could actually be sick — and contagious — before you even become aware of your symptoms.

The cold is spread through tiny droplets of moisture that are released when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even breathes. Other people then either breathe in the virus, or touch a surface that’s been infected with droplets, and then proceed to rub their eyes, nose, and mouth. Some of these viruses can survive in the open environment for over 18 hours, so it can be hard to pinpoint when, where, and how you became infected.

Cold symptoms tend to develop gradually over time. This is one of the early points of differentiation from the flu, where the symptoms generally occur quite quickly. You’re likely to have a scratchy or sore throat and perhaps a stuffy nose. You may experience slight aches, fatigue, and weakness.

At this point, it may be worth visiting the pharmacy to stock up on some treatments to relieve your symptoms and be prepared in case they become worse.

If you’re considering taking natural medicines, there’s some evidence to suggest that regularly taking a vitamin C supplement may reduce the duration of cold symptoms for some people, especially older people and those who exercise regularly. Similarly, zinc lozenges have been found in some studies to shorten the duration of a cold by 2-4 days. In order to be most effective, zinc should be taken at the first sign of symptoms. It’s important to remember, however, that zinc is found in the food that we eat and commonly added to supplements, so be careful not to overdo it.

Stage two: days four to seven

This period is when you’re likely to feel your worst. At this stage, you’re definitely aware that you’ve been infected with a virus, and are probably feeling poorly.

You probably also have a blocked nose. This happens when the blood vessels in the nose are inflamed and swollen, causing mucus to build up and making it difficult to breathe. In addition to the symptoms in stage one, you could also have a headache and fever.

A cough is also common for people in this period, as mucus runs down the back of the throat, or because of the congestion of mucus in the chest.

While you can’t cure a cold, there are medicines and treatments that can help to soothe your symptoms and bring you some relief. Lozenges can help to relieve a sore throat and nasal sprays and drops can help with a blocked nose. A chesty cough syrup can help you to cough up mucus that’s in your airways by thinning it out and breaking it down. There are also cold and flu medicines, which aim to treat multiple symptoms at once. It’s important to pay attention to what you’re taking and when in order to avoid taking double doses of medicines. Pay close attention to the list of ingredients, always follow the advice on the packaging, and speak to your pharmacist if you’re confused or unsure which option is right for you and your symptoms.

At this point, you’re very likely to be contagious. You may wish to get a workplace leave certificate so you can stay home, rest, and avoid passing the virus onto others. Resting is one of the best things you can do for your body. Give yourself some time to recover, drink plenty of fluids, keep warm and avoid contact with others. You may find that taking a hot shower or using a vaporiser helps with your congestion.

Stage three: days seven to 10

Good news: most people find that their symptoms tend to clear up, or at least improve, during this period.

If you’re wondering whether you’re still contagious, consider the severity of your symptoms. If you have active symptoms like sneezing, a stuffy or runny nose, or a cough, you’re likely to be spreading the virus through those infected droplets of moisture.

Some symptoms may linger. If you’re concerned, speak to your pharmacist or doctor.

When to see your doctor

Of course, the common cold won’t be the same for everyone, and it’s important to know when to seek medical attention. See your doctor if you have any of the following:

● A high fever

● Severe chills

● Pain or stiffness in your neck

● A rash that doesn’t go away when pressed

● A severe headache

● Dizziness and disorientation

● A cough that gets worse

● Mucus that contains blood, is a deep yellow, brown or green

● A throat that’s so sore you can’t eat

● Difficulty breathing

● An earache or pus in the eyes

You may also be interested in the following:

4 Reasons to get the flu vaccination this year
6 flu myths - busted
Germs at school - teach your kids to avoid colds

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Capital Chemist acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we operate, live and gather as employees, and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.