Can Cold-Like Symptoms Persist for Weeks? A Specialist Clarifies

Can Cold-Like Symptoms Persist for Weeks? A Specialist Clarifies

Get insights from CNN wellness expert, Dr Leana Wen, as she addresses the duration of viral respiratory illnesses during the winter surge Learn when to seek medical advice and discover effective recovery measures to overcome lingering cold-like symptoms

Discover the keys to living well with ease through our weekly roundup. Join CNN's Life, But Better newsletter to access valuable information and resources aimed at enhancing your overall well-being. As the winter surge of respiratory viruses unfolds, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting a concerning uptick in hospitalizations linked to Covid-19, influenza, and RSV.

Can Cold-Like Symptoms Persist for Weeks? A Specialist Clarifies

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Many individuals suffering from illness have noticed that their symptoms are persisting for over a week, and even up to two weeks for some. Is this considered normal? What are the appropriate expectations for the duration of viral respiratory illnesses? When is it necessary to consult a doctor for additional testing? What other measures can be taken to aid in recovery? For instance, is it advisable to work, attend school, or engage in physical activity?

To address these inquiries, I interviewed CNN health expert Dr. Leana Wen. Dr. Wen is an emergency physician and a professor of health policy and management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She previously served as the health commissioner for Baltimore.

CNN: Many people know others who have been experiencing virus symptoms for weeks. Is this a normal occurrence?

Dr. Leana Wen: There are three considerations to take into account. Firstly, let's talk about the usual duration of symptoms for common illnesses. For a regular cold, symptoms generally peak within the first few days after onset. However, some symptoms, like a runny or stuffy nose or cough, can last for up to 14 days, as per the CDC.

Similarly, while most people infected with influenza typically recover within seven days, some may experience symptoms for over two weeks. This is also true for RSV, the coronavirus, and other viruses. Although symptoms generally peak within the first week and most individuals recover within two weeks, it is not uncommon for some to take longer to fully recover.

Can Cold-Like Symptoms Persist for Weeks? A Specialist Clarifies

With a cold, a cough may last up to two weeks, the CDC says, but some people who experience viral illnesses may have a cough that lasts several weeks.

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Additionally, it is quite common for certain symptoms to persist even after others have disappeared. For example, individuals might experience a lingering cough that lasts for several weeks, despite the fact that other symptoms such as body aches and fever have subsided within a few days.

Can Cold-Like Symptoms Persist for Weeks? A Specialist Clarifies

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This is particularly the case for individuals with existing lung conditions, as the virus could exacerbate their illness. For example, someone with asthma may find themselves needing to use their inhaler more frequently in the weeks or months following their infection. In addition, there are post-viral conditions, such as long Covid, which are linked to ongoing symptoms like fatigue and cognitive impairment that could persist for months or longer.

Furthermore, it is also possible that individuals who believe they are experiencing one long-lasting viral illness may actually be dealing with multiple cycles of viral infections. For example, children in school and daycare settings may recover from one virus only to contract another, and may even be dealing with multiple viruses simultaneously. What may appear to be a prolonged recovery could in fact be the result of overlapping infections.

CNN: When should individuals consider seeking further medical attention?

First and foremost, it is important to consider the age and preexisting medical conditions of the individual. Newborns and elderly individuals are more susceptible to severe illness from viral infections, while those with underlying conditions such as heart and lung disease and compromised immune systems are also at higher risk.

These individuals should prioritize seeking additional medical care sooner. It is essential for them to have a plan in place with their primary care provider regarding the symptoms that should prompt them to seek care. Everyone should be aware of how to contact their provider after hours, and if this is not feasible, they should have a plan in place for which emergency room or urgent care facility to visit in case of an emergency.

Can Cold-Like Symptoms Persist for Weeks? A Specialist Clarifies

Ill woman looking at thermometer at home.

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With respiratory viruses spreading, what steps should be taken if you become ill?

Another consideration is if testing has already been conducted. Do you know the specific virus causing your symptoms? For instance, if someone has tested positive for Covid-19 and has begun antiviral treatment, they may not need further testing immediately. However, it is important to reach out to a medical provider, especially for those at high risk, to confirm the next steps. Additionally, if a chest X-ray has not been done, it may be necessary to seek medical attention for additional testing.

Another crucial factor to consider is the length of time and the development of your symptoms. If it has been 10 days and your symptoms are getting better, that's a different situation than if it has been more than two weeks and you are now experiencing new or worsening symptoms. Urgent care should be sought if experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain, or difficulty in keeping down fluids.

Additionally, if your symptoms improved but then worsened again, you may have a second, different infection. If eligible for antiviral treatment, it is advisable to consult your doctor for testing for flu or Covid-19. There is also the chance that you may have something other than a viral respiratory infection. Some individuals who initially have a viral infection could later develop a bacterial infection.

If you do decide to consult your doctor, what can you expect and what questions should you ask?

Wen: Your doctor will arrange either an in-person or virtual appointment with you. During the appointment, they will inquire about your symptoms, so it is important to provide a comprehensive description of how you have been feeling and any changes in your symptoms over time. Discuss the treatments you have attempted and their effectiveness. Be sure to highlight any particular symptom that is causing concern to you.

Can Cold-Like Symptoms Persist for Weeks? A Specialist Clarifies

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It is important to consider if you need additional testing, like viral tests, blood tests, or a chest X-ray. Ask your doctor what these tests are looking for and what to do if the tests come back negative. Should you continue with treatments like fluids and fever-reducing medications? What other possible diagnoses is your doctor thinking about? If tests aren't needed now, when might they be in the future?

CNN: What additional actions can be taken to support your recovery? For instance, is it recommended to return to work, attend school, or engage in physical activity?

Wen: Many viral illnesses resolve without specific treatment. The recovery process varies based on individuals' past actions and current condition. Some people may require rest, while others may choose to stay active with light exercise. These options are generally reasonable, and individuals should consult their healthcare provider to discuss their specific circumstances.