4 signs your cold is getting better, according to an infectious disease doctor

While children play in winter wonderlands, families nestle together near the fire, and workers attend their annual holiday party, viruses are plotting to give them a cold.

As an infectious disease specialist, I have learned even Santa Claus is not immune to the common cold. Most adults get an average of two to three colds a year, and the fall and winter seasons are when cold viruses are at their best.

The good news is these uninvited guests eventually go away. Here are some ways to tell if your cold is getting better.

Signs your cold is getting better

A cold is an infection caused by over 200 respiratory viruses, but the most common is a virus known as rhinovirus. Sometimes you don’t even know you have been expose because it usually takes several days after an exposure to a cold virus to develop symptoms.

Cold symptoms are often confused with the flu. One major difference with cold symptoms versus the flu are symptoms from a cold generally occur more gradually compared with the flu.

Clear mucus after white, yellow or green mucus

The viruses start by infiltrating inside our nose and the sinuses, which triggers our body to produce mucus to wash away the germs. The mucus starts off as clear, so this is often an early sign you have a cold.

Over the next several days, the mucus color may change to white, yellow or green. Although this can feel like you are getting worse, the change in color is a natural course of the illness. When the mucus becomes clear again, this is a sign you are on the mend.

Your symptoms are becoming less severe

The typical cold symptoms due to a cold gradually go away or slowly become less severe over days. Watch for these symptoms that your cold getting better:

  • Fewer body aches

  • Less nasal congestion

  • Decreased coughing

  • Resolved sore throat

It's been more than a week since your cold started

Most colds last for generally a week to 10 days. The timing varies from person to person, depending on their underlying medical issues. In rare circumstances, certain people, such as those with weakened immune systems or multiple chronic medical conditions, can have cold symptoms that last three weeks or more because their immune system cannot fight the germs as well.

Your getting your energy back

When we first have a cold, you often don’t feel like doing your daily activities. You may not feel like going to work, school or running errands. As you slowly gain your energy back, it’s a good sign your cold is likely going away if you feel you can go back to your normal routine.

Stages of cold

The common cold has three stages. There is also an incubation period, which is the time between becoming infected and developing symptoms. This period will vary depending on the specific virus that infects you, but people generally start to develop symptoms within one to three days after getting exposed to someone with a cold.

Stage 1 — Early

The first sign of a cold is a symptom you probably already know too well: a slight tickle in the back of your throat or a sore throat. Symptoms at this stage are usually mild, so many people may not feel the need to address them.

In the early stage of a cold, you may also experience the following:

  • Fatigue

  • Runny nose

  • Clear mucus

This stage lasts for approximately two to three days.

Stage 2 — Peak

The cold symptoms peak within day four to seven of when they started. This is when you feel the sickest and when your nose runs like a faucet.

Some other typical symptoms in the peak stage are:

  • General tiredness

  • Body aches

  • Sneezing

  • Cough

  • Runny nose

Most people with colds don’t have a fever, so if you have a fever with cold symptoms, you might have the flu — especially if your symptoms come on suddenly.

Stage 3 — Recovery

This is the period when you start feeling back to normal. The cough, runny nose and congestion start to improve and gradually resolve usually within a week to 10 days of when you first got sick. Although some symptoms may continue after 10 days, such as a nagging cough, they eventually should get better over time.

How to know if you no longer have a cold

There’s no test to know if you no longer have a cold.

After a cold virus infects your body, your immune system kicks into gear to get rid of it, which in turn cause you to develop various symptoms. When these symptoms resolve, this is a good sign the cold has resolved.

How long is a cold contagious?

A cold is contagious for several days before you even know you have a cold — that's why it spreads so easily — and it continues to be infectious for as long as you have symptoms. (Most cold symptoms last a week.) A person with a cold is most likely to spread the virus when they are most sick.

Signs you need to see a doctor

Most adults who get a cold get better on their own. If any of your symptoms gets better but then worsens again, see a health care professional. A cold can also aggravate chronic medical conditions — especially asthma or COPD, so if you start to wheeze or notice your other medical illnesses worsening, seek help.

Other warning symptoms include:

  • A fever that doesn't get better

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Breathing trouble

  • Chest pain

  • Dizziness, feeling faint or urinating less than usual — which could be a sign of dehydration

  • Symptoms that are not improving after one week

  • Uncontrollable cough or a cough that makes you want to vomit

  • Headache, sinus pain or sore throat that becomes intense or won’t go away

How to treat a cold

Unless there’s a holiday miracle this year, there’s no cure for the cold. Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics will not make it go away faster (because they fight bacteria, not viruses).

There is no single medication to treat the common cold because it can be caused by many different viruses. The treatment for colds is symptomatic care, meaning it’s directed at your symptoms:

  • Get plenty of rest. With day-to-day responsibilities, this is never easy, but you put more pressure on your immune system when you continue normal activities while sick.

  • Stay hydrated. There is no one-size-fits-all number for how much you need to drink when sick, but if you are thirsty or your urine is dark, you likely need to drink more fluids. This may include tea, juices, clear soups, broths and water.

  • For sore throats, saltwater gargles are helpful. Try one-half teaspoon salt in eight ounces of warm water. Ice chips or frozen popsicles can also help soothe the throat, especially in children.

  • For sinus congestion, a sinus rinse is helpful. But always remember to use distilled, sterile or boiled water. Boil water for several minutes, then allow it to cool to lukewarm temperature.

  • For sinus pain, try a warm washcloth on the face.

  • Consider humidifying the air with a clean humidifier, cool mist vaporizer or breathing in steam from a bowl or from a hot shower.

  • For coughs, consider throat lozenges or cough drops for anyone over the age of 4. Honey can also help for anyone at least 1 year old.

  • For body aches or fevers, acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help for adults, but for anyone younger than 6 months of age, only use acetaminophen.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com