How long should coughs and runny noses last?
© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD
Many sick visits to primary care docs, like me, are driven by just a handful of complaints, all typically caused by viral upper respiratory infections (URIs): cough, congestion, and runny noses. How long should parents expect ordinary cold symptoms to last?
Longer than you’d think.
The British Medical Journal this month published a wonderful article, titled “Duration of symptoms of respiratory tract infections in children: systematic review. They found 48 studies of the symptoms of URIs which included systematic tracking of system duration. Only placebos or over-the-counter remedies were included—they did not include any patients treated with antibiotics. From pooling the information from all of these studies, they found that:
- Cough usually lasted at least 10 days (that is, 50% of kids with cough were still coughing after day 10). Cough resolved in 90% of patients by day 25—meaning that 1 in 10 children were still coughing at day 26, almost 4 weeks after the start of the cold.
- Common cold nasal symptoms resolved by day 10 in 50% of children. 90% were better by day 15.
So: ordinary colds, just ordinary viruses we all get, cause symptoms that typically last a couple of weeks, with the cough often lingering even longer. The old joke ought to be rewritten: without this prescription, your cold will last two weeks. With it, it’ll only last 14 days.
If you or your child has an icky cold, you might be tempted to see your doctor after a few days or a week. It’s probably better to wait longer—save yourself a visit, and you’ll be less likely to end up on an antibiotic that won’t do you any good anyway.