Common Cold: Early Signs and 4 Stages

Medically Reviewed on 3/4/2022

What are the early signs of a common cold?

The common cold progresses through four different stages.
The common cold progresses through four different stages and presents with these early signs.

The initial signs of a common cold are usually a sore throat and runny nose followed by coughing and sneezing

Other typical symptoms of a common cold include:

Symptoms usually go away within 7 to 10 days. In people with weak immunity, asthma or other lung conditions such as bronchitis or pneumonia may develop.

What are the 4 different stages of a common cold?

A common cold may typically follow a certain pattern of progression. The typical pattern, however, may not be experienced by everyone who gets a cold.

The typical stages of a common cold are as follows:

  • Stage 1 (incubation period): This refers to the stage between the infection by a cold virus and the development of symptoms. This stage may last for one to three days, although for some it may be as short as 10 to 12 hours. 
  • Stage 2 (appearance and progression of symptoms): In this stage, symptoms begin and reach their peak intensity. The symptoms of a cold generally peak in one to three days. Typical cold symptoms include a sore throat, sneezing, cough, a stuffy nose, a runny nose (clear, watery discharge from the nose), feeling sick, headache, body ache, and fever. Fever is more commonly seen in children. 
  • Stage 3 (stage of remission): This stage is marked by a decline and eventual fading of cold symptoms. The symptoms usually subside between 3 and 10 days. After two to three days of the appearance of symptoms, the discharge from the nose may appear white, yellow, or green. This color change is normal and does not mean that antibiotics are needed. 
  • Stage 4 (stage of recovery): In this stage, the person feels normal and gets on their feet. There may be some lingering symptoms such as mild cough, stuffy nose, and scanty nasal discharge. Such mild symptoms may last up to two weeks in some people. They can be easily managed by appropriate over-the-counter (OTC) medications and a healthy diet.


The common cold is one of the most common illnesses in the world. See Answer

What exactly is a common cold?

The common cold or viral rhinitis is an upper respiratory infection caused by several types of viruses. It is one of the most common infectious diseases affecting humans. Over 200 types of viruses have been identified that cause the common cold.

  • Most colds are caused by viruses belonging to the rhinovirus family.
  • Other common causes of a cold include coronavirus (COVID-19), adenovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
  • Most people with a common cold recover in about 7 to 10 days.

There are millions of cases of the common cold each year in the United States. It is one of the main reasons for children missing school and for adults missing work. Children are affected more commonly with a cold than adults who may have an average of two to three colds each year.

One can avoid getting a cold by following hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact with sick people, and not touching the face with unwashed hands. Although most people catch a common cold in winter and spring, it is possible to get a cold at any time during the year. There is no evidence whether going out in cold weather can make someone more vulnerable to catching a common cold.

What can I take for a cold while breastfeeding?

what cold medicine can you take while breastfeeding
If you are a nursing mom, what cold medicine can you take while breastfeeding?

If you are breastfeeding, it’s important to be careful about what you put into your body, as what you ingest can enter your breast milk and thus be ingested by your baby.

While most cold medicines are safe to take while breastfeeding, make sure to first:

  • Check with your doctor.
  • Determine the active ingredient in the medicine.
  • Check the correct dosage amount.
  • Be prepared to monitor your baby for any behavioral or medical changes.

Generally, the amount of medicine that enters your milk when breastfeeding is much lower (about 5-10 times lower) than the amount your baby would be exposed to while in your uterus. 

However, because these drugs do enter your milk in small quantities, try to stick with the lowest possible dose you need to treat your symptoms. Also, to minimize any possible effects on your baby, you can feed your baby first and then take the medicine.

What cold medicines are safe to take while breastfeeding?

Cold medicines that are considered safe to take while breastfeeding include: 

  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Zyrtec (cetirizine)
  • Nasal sprays that contain Afrin (oxymetazoline), Flonase, Nasacort (steroids), or plain saline
  • Dextromethorphan (you will have to keep an eye on your baby for any unusual drowsiness or a decrease in appetite while you are on this drug)
  • Lozenges containing mild antiseptics, amylmetacresol, dichlorobenzyl alcohol, or cetylpyridinium
  • Certain influenza antiviral medications, such as oseltamivir (although your doctor will prescribe the best treatment for you)
  • Most cold and allergy relief eye drops

It is also safe to get the flu vaccine when you are breastfeeding.

What antibiotics are safe to take while breastfeeding?

Antibiotics that are generally safe to take while breastfeeding include:

What medicines to avoid while breastfeeding

Medicines that should be avoided while breastfeeding include:

  • Codeine
  • Zinc supplements
  • Aspirin
  • Combined cough and cold or cough and flu medicines, such as Benadryl or Robitussin (these contain decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine, which may reduce your milk supply and could make your baby irritable and restless)

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What home remedies can you try to treat a cold?

One of the most amazing characteristics of human milk is how it adapts. As mother and baby are exposed to bacteria and viruses, breast milk includes antibodies specific to those antigens, as well as disease-fighting substances that help prevent many common illnesses. A mother will pass antibodies to her baby through her milk, which can destroy bacteria in the infant’s gastrointestinal tract before they have a chance to make the baby sick. 

If you are trying to beat your cold naturally, you can try the following home remedies:

  • Steam. For nasal congestion, you can try inhaling steam over a bowl of hot water.
  • Saline drops or nose sprays. These are also cheap and effective for nasal congestion.
  • Water. Since a cold can dehydrate you, aim for at least 10 glasses (8-ounce glasses) of water per day.
  • Honey and ginger. These are naturally antimicrobial and decongesting agents. Raw honey can be added to ginger tea or consumed as is.
  • Garlic. Garlic contains allicin, which has been proven to have antibacterial, antiviral, and antiseptic properties.
  • Chicken broth. Studies show that chicken soup has mild anti-inflammatory effects that may provide relief from upper respiratory infections.

For some mothers, the thought of taking meds while pregnant or breastfeeding is scary. You are doing your best to stay healthy and decrease your baby’s exposure to chemicals. However, sometimes, the judicious use of medicines that can help you feel well enough to get through the day is the best thing you can do for yourself and your baby. When in doubt, call your doctor.

Medically Reviewed on 3/4/2022
Medscape Medical Reference


Harvard Medical School

The Royal Women’s Hospital. Medicines in Breastfeeding.

Mitchell JL. Use of cough and cold preparations during breastfeeding. J Hum Lact. 1999 Dec;15(4):347-9.

WebMD. Cold and Allergy Meds: Safe While Breastfeeding?