The 5 Stages of the Common Cold

We are all familiar with the stages of catching a cold: paranoia, denial, anger & blame, wallowing in reluctant acceptance, and finally blessed relief. But, you know, scientifically, it’s a little different. Knowledge is power, of course, and although science is so far powerless to completely cure the common cold (we’re working on it!), knowing of the stages that the virus goes through can actually help you identify where you are and the best treatment and course of action to help you #GetWellFast. Keep in mind, there is some variation among sources regarding what the specific stages are, but here is an approximation that will certainly help! Ready? Let’s Go.

Stages of The Common Cold

Stage 1: Incubation Period (Days 1-4)

So you caught a virus. Inconvenient, painful, profoundly irritating, yet largely unavoidable at least a few times a year. It’s very likely a rhinovirus, but it could also be another 200 other kinds of viruses. The germs will usually get trapped inside your nasal passages, throat, or upper airway. It’ll attach itself to what are called Intercellular Adhesion Molecule 1 receptors (or ICAM-1 receptors, for short!) and begin to replicate (here’s a handy video describing the process!), but you probably won’t feel any symptoms for a few more days. You’re still contagious though; just one of the interesting reasons colds are so easy to spread!

Stage 2: First Signs (Days 2-5)

This is it. This is when your body starts giving you those tell-tale clues that something’s afoot. Try as we might to ignore the signs (denial is not just a river in Egypt, as they say!) this is the crucial moment where we should really pay attention. Fatigue, that throat tickle or soreness, body aches, sneezing — your body is starting to produce the antibodies to fight that virus. Now is the time to get as much rest as you possibly can, drink plenty of fluids, eat healthy foods and, of course, start taking Cold-EEZE to try and keep this as short and mild as possible. You’re also most contagious at this point, so if you have the luxury to take a sick day, do it!

Stage 3: The Worst of It (Days 3-6)

Now you’re really in it. Symptoms start to target the nasal region more, the sneezing has likely turned into a runny nose and congestion, the mucus may have become thicker and greener (owing to the lovely neutrophils, white blood cells working overtime to overcome the virus). You might get a cough or feel like you need to clear your throat a lot, because of post-nasal drip, which will often be quite persistent and last for a while after other symptoms have gone. Steam, decongestants and plenty of rest will help!

Stage 4: Home stretch (Days 5-7)

You’ll usually start to feel better about 3 or 4 days after you started noticing the first signs (so, 5-7 days after you were first infected). If your symptoms go on for longer than that or get worse, it’s possible that you have a bacterial infection, in which case it’s a good idea to go to the doctor and get tested to see if you should take antibiotics (they only work for bacterial infections, never viral infections, like most colds!).

Stage 5: Bye-bye cold (Days 7-10)

And there you have it. The virus has now been eliminated from your body through the wonders of the immune system. The good news is that the antibodies you produced to fight the cold mean you’re immune to that specific strain of virus (yay!), but there are hundreds more out there that could still infect you (boo).


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