2014-02-06

How Long do Cold Symptoms Last?

How Long do Cold Symptoms Last?
Everyone gets colds, everyone.   

And we all have a sense of how long we think it's normal for them to last, but do we really know?

Well, now we do.   A major study was published by scientists from Oxford and Bristol in the UK and from Portland, OR in the US.   http://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f7027.pdf%2Bhtml

In this paper, the medical literature was examined and 48 studies identified that gave good data on how long a runny nose, a cough, a sore throat, and an earache last when you get a cold or the flu.

What follows is what they found out.  But first a word on how they reported the results.

The Technique of Describing How long the Symptom Lasts
What they did was take a group of kids with colds and ask two questions, for each symptom:

  1. How many days need to go by for half the kids to no longer have that symptom?
  2. How many days need to go by for nearly all (90% to be exact) of the kids to no longer have that symptom?
For all the results, keep in mind the number of days is how long it took otherwise healthy kids with colds to get better.   This information does not include any children who developed complications such as pneumonia or asthma, just simple colds that healed without any complications or lasting problems.

The Results:  How long does each Symptom Last?

So here we go, this is how long each of these 4 symptoms typically last in a simple, uncomplicated cold that heals completely without any complication:

Runny Nose, Feeling Sick
50% of kids stopped having a runny nose or feeling sick by Day 10 of the cold
90% of kids stopped having a runny nose or feeling sick by Day 16 of the cold
Range: Looking at all the kids, the range of how long kids had a runny nose or felt sick was 4-16 days.

Sore Throat
This symptom did not have enough people studies to give 50 and 90 percentile duration numbers, but the study did cite that:
Looking at all the kids, sore throats lasted in a range from 2-6.7 days.
Interestingly, how long you were suffering from a sore throat was the same if you had a cold or strep throat.

Fever
Again, not enough kids studied to give exact percentile ranges, but the following trends were reported:
Most typically, fever lasted 2-3 days (44% of kids with a cold)
But fever often lasted more than 3 days (28% of kids with a cold)
Many kids were lucky to have a fever for less than a day (17% of kids with a cold)
And a few had a fever for the 1-2 day  duration (11% of kids with a cold)

Ear Infection
50% of kids stopped having an earache by Day 3 of the cold
90% of kids stopped having an earache by Day 7-8 of the cold
Range: Looking at all the kids, the range of how long kids had an earache was 1/2-9 days.

Croup
50% of kids stopped having croupy cough by Day 1 of the illness
80% of kids stopped having croupy cough by Day 2 of the illness
Range: Looking at all the kids, the range of how long kids had a croupy cough was 1-3 days.

COUGH
50% of kids stopped having a cough by Day 10 of the cold
90% of kids stopped having a cough by Day 25 of the cold
Range: Looking at all the kids, the range of how long kids had a cough was 1-25 days.

What these Observations Mean

This was a very, very interesting study, finally answering a question we get asked as much as any other question:
How long does a cold symptom last, and if the symptom is still present does that mean it's no longer just a cold, but some complication has developed?

Now we have the answers.

As noted above, the most striking finding for me was that a child with a plain old cold, no complications, who is going to be fine, can easily have a cough for 25 days!

This is what we see, it does fit with actual experience, but how incredible that a simple cold can make you cough for a month, easily.   And it fits with our experience that the fever, ear ache, sore throat, runny nose, and even feeling sick can all go away long before the cough ceases.

Bottom Line
  • The one day cold is a great hope, but rarely seen.
  • Colds tend to last 1-2 weeks.
  • The cough from a cold is the symptom that takes the longest to heal, and typically can go on for a month, even if no complications are present.
  • Overall, colds cause a lot more suffering than we imagine, but they do heal, they ultimately cause no lasting harm or damage, it takes a long time to heal, but we do heal, and completely.

Dr. Arthur Lavin






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