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How Long is the Common Cold Incubation Period?

By Sandi Johnson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus called rhinovirus. The common cold incubation period varies greatly from one person to the next. Symptoms can appear in just a few hours or as long as 10 days after exposure. The average incubation period is one to three days. Medications do not affect the incubation of a cold, nor do they eradicate it unless it is accompanied by a bacterial infection.

Scientists believe that more than 100 rhinovirus variations are present in human populations. Some place estimates at more than 200 virus types. The most common is the corona virus, although adenoviruses, echoviruses, enteroviruses and respiratory syncytial viruses are also common. Each of these viruses causes different symptoms and infection severity, and they require different incubation periods.

The breadth of virus types makes it difficult to pinpoint an exact common cold incubation period. Each rhinovirus variation presents with different symptoms in varying degrees. Some viruses are aggressive, resulting in a short cold incubation period. Other viruses are less aggressive, taking longer before telltale symptoms such as a heavy cough, congestion or fever present.

Individual immune system function is also a factor in the incubation of the common cold. A person exposed to a cold virus might test positive for infection without presenting with symptoms for several days. Other individuals begin to sneeze, cough or run a fever in less than 24 hours. The same individual can experience different incubation periods, depending on the condition of his or her immune system at the time of exposure and the type of virus involved.

In addition to affecting common cold incubation, virus type and individual immune system function also contribute to the duration and severity of a cold. The average cold lasts one to two weeks. Symptoms typically begin with a runny nose or mild congestion, sore throat or light cough. As the cold progresses, body and muscle aches, fever and fatigue become prominent symptoms. Congestion, coughing and sore throat symptoms increase in severity.

A person or child easily catches a cold from others, no matter the specific virus in question. Simply breathing airborne germs or touching contaminated surfaces around another person who has a cold presents the opportunity for exposure. Beyond common cold incubation and the duration of infection, the most common question regarding colds is how long a person is contagious. Experts estimate that an infected person is most contagious during the first 72 hours. After the first week, little risk of spreading the infection is present.

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Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Jul 23, 2013

I studied this in class this week. The incubation period for a common cold depends on the kind of virus it's caused by. The incubation period is at least two days and up to a week or two weeks depending on the cause. Some people get symptoms within the first day though.

I had a cold last month and I know that I got it from a classmate. Some mild symptoms started the day after I got the virus from him, but I was very sick only by the third day.

By bear78 — On Jul 22, 2013

@burcidi-- I don't think so. Three weeks is too long as an incubation period for a common cold. The incubation period is usually a few days in most people, but it can be up to a week.

If you had said two weeks, then I would have said maybe, but I doubt that you picked up the cold from your friend. You must have picked it up somewhere else within the past week. Were you in public places a lot?

By burcidi — On Jul 22, 2013

I stayed with my friend three weeks ago and she had a cold at the time. Since last night, I've been feeling sick. I have a headache, I feel cold, I'm sneezing and I'm nauseated. Could I have picked up the cold from my friend?

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