A cold lasts longer than you think

Here’s a simple question: how long should symptoms of a common cold last? Three days? How about five? Maybe a week?

A study published in January, 2008 sought to answer that question. School-age children were followed for several months, and kept records of the onset and duration of common cold symptoms like fever, congestion, cough, sneezing, and runny nose. During the study period, 81 colds occurred. The investigators also collected mucus from the kids during their colds to test it for viruses and bacteria.

There was no surprise about the most common symptoms: cough, congestion, and runny nose. But what may surprise many families is just how long colds last. In this study, 73% of the children continued to have cold symptoms for at least ten days. Furthermore, though most of the children had only viruses detected in their nasal secretions, the children who also had bacteria present had no difference in their symptoms or duration. In other words, even when bacteria were present, the colds lasted the same amount of time and went away on their own, with the same symptoms reported.

So: ordinary, common colds usually last ten days or more. Other studies have confirmed that even prolonged colds will go away on their own with or without antibiotics—in other words, antibiotics don’t help colds go away faster.

The best advice for a family with a child who has a cold is to wash hands carefully to prevent spread, and offer safe comfort measures like extra fluids, humidity, rest, and perhaps pain-relieving medication. And don’t be surprised if it takes more then ten days for the cold to go away completely.

For more information about the use of medicines to treat cold symptoms, see the thread Cough and cold medicines don’t work.

© 2008 Roy Benaroch, MD from http://www.PediatricInsider.com

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2 Comments on “A cold lasts longer than you think”

  1. Sandra Says:

    Thanks for the useful information, it will help to calm my husband down when I tell antibiotics are not for everything! I would however greatly appreciate if you would cite the study that that you refer to. A study dated January 2008 is very little to go on and lends little credibility when we don´t know about who, where or how the study was performed.


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Sandra, thanks for noticing that there was no link to the study. I had intended the link to be attached to text in the story, but somehow it didn’t come through when I pasted the story into WordPress.

    The study I cited:


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