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Common cold symptoms: What’s normal, what’s not

Your nose is constantly running. You're coughing. But are these the symptoms of a common cold? Perhaps you have flu or allergy symptoms instead.

If you understand common cold symptoms, what you may feel with a cold, you can take action, such as getting more rest and fluids early in the illness, when these measures may be most effective. Let's look at some common cold symptoms.

Common cold symptoms at onset

Colds usually begin with a sore throat, followed by symptoms such as a clear, watery nasal drainage; sneezing; a tired sensation (known as malaise); adults tend not to develop a fever but if present, the fever will be low-grade (below 38°C). You may become hoarse and develop a cough.

For the first few days of a cold, your nose drips with watery nasal secretions. Later, these secretions may become thicker and darker. Dark mucus with a cold virus does not necessarily mean you have developed a bacterial infection, so don't beg your doctor for antibiotics.

A mild cough is not uncommon with a cold. The cough may not get much worse but it is likely to last into the second or third week of your cold. If you have asthma or another lung problem, a cold may make it worse. If you are coughing up dark mucus, or feeling ‘distress’ deep down in your lungs - you could have a bacterial infection. It's a good idea to speak to your GP to check whether you need to be seen.

As already mentioned, adults tend not to develop a fever with a cold, but if present, the fever will be low-grade. A higher temperature together with more severe symptoms may indicate that you have flu, and not a cold.

Common cold symptoms usually start between 1 and 3 days after you are infected with a cold virus. Typically, the symptoms last for about 7 to 14 days. At that point, the worst is over, but you may feel congested for a few weeks. Whilst you have symptoms of the common cold you are contagious. That means you can pass the cold virus on to people who come into contact with you.

Is it allergies?

Sometimes you may mistake the symptoms of a common cold for allergic rhinitis - one type of which is hayfever. If your symptoms begin quickly and are over within 1 to 3 weeks, chances are it's a cold and not an allergy. If the symptoms last longer than three weeks, seek medical advice to see if you've developed an allergy.

Allergies are triggered by an overactive immune system. For some reason your body over-reacts to substances like mould or pollen. It then releases chemicals such as histamine. This can cause swelling in your nasal passages, a runny nose, coughing and sneezing. Allergies are not contagious, although some people may inherit a tendency to develop them.

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