Published on March 24, 2021 at 19:10 / Updated on February 27, 2024 at 20:59

How long do colds and flu last?

Cold symptoms last for four to seven days. Usually, the risk of contagion is greatest in the first three days of illness. There is some risk of transmission after the third day, but to a lesser degree.

The flu, on the other hand, is contagious one day before symptoms develop and remains so for five to seven days after they appear. Children could be contagious for longer periods.

Cold or flu symptom graphic

How to tell if you have a cold or the flu?

Colds and flu are respiratory infections that are often confused because they can cause similar symptoms. Although viruses cause the two illnesses, their severity levels are different.

Common cold

The common cold is more common and milder than the flu. A person with a cold will experience milder symptoms, including a cough, a runny nose, or a sore throat, but will likely be able to continue to function normally.


The flu, caused by influenza-type viruses, will cause more severe symptoms such as fever, muscle stiffness, an often a dry and sudden cough and severe fatigue. It’s not uncommon for a person with the flu to be unable to go about their daily business.

What are the best ways to reduce the spread of colds and flu?

Colds and flu can be spread in different ways:

  • By direct contact with the infected person
  • By indirect contact with contaminated surfaces
  • By droplets projected into the air

Cold and flu preventative measures

By understanding the modes of transmission, these preventative measures make sense:

  1. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer.
  2. Avoid direct contact (hugs, handshakes, kisses, etc.) with infected people.
  3. Disinfect surfaces likely to be contaminated, such as phones, keyboards, door handles, etc.
  4. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against the common cold, which is why other preventive measures are so important.

Can the duration of a cold or flu be reduced?

While there are plenty of products to relieve symptoms, there is no silver bullet. Over-the-counter products cannot shorten the duration of the infection, but can make it more tolerable by relieving some symptoms. There’s a joke about this, which is very true: an untreated cold lasts a week and a treated cold lasts 7 days. When it comes to the flu, some symptoms like fatigue and coughing can last longer than two weeks.

Lastly, it’s important to point out that antibiotics are ineffective in treating colds and flu, as these are caused by viruses and not bacteria. However, it is possible that after a cold or the flu, a person will develop a bacterial complication like bronchitis or sinusitis; a medical consultation will then be necessary to determine the appropriate treatment.

If you have any questions about products to relieve cold and flu symptoms, don’t hesitate to consult your pharmacist.

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