Diseases & Conditions

Stages of a Cold: Your A-to-Z Guide to the Common Cold (Adults)

The common cold – almost everyone will get it, and there’s no known cure. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), millions of Americans get the cold every year, with adults averaging between two to three colds each year. Children frequently get sick more often.

With the susceptibility that we all have to catching the common cold, it can be helpful to be as informed as possible about it. Though there’s no proven method to resolve colds, there are steps that can be taken for prevention and to help with symptoms that often accompany them.

In this article, we’ll review the stages of progression for common colds in adults, what you can do to prevent catching colds, and the best ways to feel better once you’ve caught one.


Before we head into the progressive stages of the common cold, let’s review prevention. While there is no guaranteed method for preventing infection with the common cold, you can take steps to reduce your chances. Here are some commonly recommended tips for prevention:

  • Wash Your Hands –  Washing your hands often is one of the most helpful things you can do to prevent picking up cold germs. Cold germs often spread through touching surfaces that have been contaminated by someone who is sick.
  • Stop Smoking – Smoking can actually lower your immune system’s ability to fight off germs and infection. If you currently smoke, it’s a good idea to stop as soon as you’re able to boost your body’s overall health.
  • Stop Stressing – Stress can affect you in more ways than you think. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “If you don’t control high stress levels, chronic inflammation can accompany it and can contribute to the development and progression of many diseases of the immune system.”
  • Eat Well – A healthy and well-balanced diet can go a long way to supporting your immune system. In fact, vitamins themselves are enhanced by the phytochemicals present in some fruits and vegetables.
  • Get Your Zzzs – If you’re looking to ward off a cold, getting some rest could be one of the best ways to do so. Some studies have shown that T cells, one type of immune cells in your body, can be improved through sleep.
  • Lessen Alcohol Consumption – Alcohol has been known to cause dehydration and inhibit the immune system. When you’re actively trying to ward away a cold, reducing your alcohol consumption may help.
  • Exercise – Getting your heart pumping and blood flowing through aerobic exercise can help boost your body’s natural immunity.

Days 1-2

Colds present differently in everyone; however, there are certain commonalities that many experience during the first couple of days after catching a cold. Here’s a list of what you can expect:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Headaches

Days 3-5

Once you’ve entered days three through five, it’s mostly more of the same symptoms, only exacerbated. Below is what you can expect during this stage of the cold’s development:

  • Increased congestion
  • Continued sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, body aches, and headaches
  • Cough
  • Low-grade fever

Days 6-7

Days six through seven are typically when colds begin to fade and you start to feel better. You’ll most likely see an improvement in symptoms during this phase, but some symptoms may change or remain:

  • Improved symptoms
  • Lingering cough
  • Possible mucus color change

After 7 Days

While many colds pass by the time the seven-day mark has been reached, symptoms can linger up to ten days, such as:

  • Cough
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose

When symptoms persist longer than ten days, it’s recommended that you contact a physician to see if there could be something else going on.


There aren’t any proven methods of treating and eliminating colds; however, there are ways to lessen and improve the symptoms you may be experiencing. Here are some adult cold treatments to consider using:

  • Honey – Honey can be used to soothe coughs and sore throats. Do not use honey in children younger than one or if you are allergic.
  • Salt Water – Mixing one-half teaspoon of salt into a half-cup of warm water and gargling with the mixture can help ease coughs and soothe sore throats.
  • Ibuprofen – Ibuprofen can be used as directed to relieve body aches, headaches, and fever.
  • Acetaminophen – Acetaminophen can be used as directed to alleviate body aches, headaches, and fever.
  • Cough Suppressants – Over-the-counter (OTC) cough suppressants can help reduce the urge and need to cough.
  • Hot Tea – It’s said that hot tea can help with easing chest and nasal congestion.
  • Decongestants – OTC decongestants can help thin and relieve nasal congestion.
  • Expectorants – OTC expectorants are used to help thin and clear mucus from the airways, lungs, trachea, and bronchi.
  • Mentholated Topical Ointment – Mentholated ointments can be used on the chest area and around the nose to help promote improved breathing.
  • Cough Drops – Cough drops are commonly used to relieve pain from sore throats.
  • Humidifier – Humidifiers can help reduce dryness in the air, which can promote coughs being more productive.
  • Antihistamines – OTC antihistamines can help relieve runny nose and sneezing associated with your cold.
  • Saline Mist – Saline mist is sometimes used to relieve nasal congestion and reduce inflammation that may be blocking nasal airways.
  • Fluids – You tend to lose a lot of fluids through mucus when you have a cold; this is why it’s crucial to drink plenty of water and electrolyte-replacing fluids while sick.
  • Rest – Rest and sleep have been shown to boost your immune system, helping you get over your cold sooner.

Before taking any medication, coordinate with your physician to ensure that what you choose is safe for you to use and conducive to your personal health.

When to Call a Doctor

While most adult common colds will clear up on their own, it’s critical that you know when to contact your physician for medical assistance. Watch for these signs:

  • Your cold lasts over ten days with no symptom relief
  • You have a fever that lasts more than four days
  • Symptoms of your cold seem to get better and then increase in severity
  • You’re dehydrated
  • You’re experiencing difficulty breathing
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