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
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
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:
stiffness in your neck
A rash that
doesn’t go away when pressed
that gets worse
contains blood, is a deep yellow, brown or green
that’s so sore you can’t eat
or pus in the eyes