INFECTIOUS DISEASE CENTER

How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
 | 
September 25, 2017

Your nose runs, body aches, and throat hurts. Staying home sounds wonderful. But you really need to work. How long is your cold contagious?

Think of your coworkers. According to Kimberly Dowdell, MD, a primary care physician at University of Virginia Health System, “Your cold may be contagious just before symptoms appear and after they have begun to fade. The highest contagion is when you’re experiencing the strongest symptoms.”

 

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How long is your cold contagious?

So how long is your cold contagious? You’re most contagious on the first two days before the symptoms start and up to two full weeks after you’re exposed to the virus. Your coworkers and your child’s classmates and teachers will appreciate it if you or your child stays home during this period. In truth, they’ll view you as a walking germ-filled factory.

How you can spread your cold

Others will see you as a germ-filled projectile; if you have a cold that’s caused by a respiratory infection, each time you sneeze or cough, you release bacteria- or virus-filled particles into the air. Depending on how hard you sneeze or cough, you could send those tiny particles as far as six feet. So, if someone is within range, he or she is likely to get infected.

If you’re the target and get an infected person’s germs on your hands and then place your hands on your face, there’s a good chance you’ll catch the cold. If you have the cold and get any bacteria or virus-filled particles on a cup, utensil, doorknob, countertop, or phone, those particles are contagious for up to 24 hours.

Don’t share food, utensils, cups, or anything else. If you touch any of these items, wash them in hot soapy water. If you have a cold, don’t let others use your phone, and disinfect it after you use it. Make sure to wash your hands often.

How you can get rid of your cold

If you have a cold, stay home, rest, and drink plenty of non-caffeinated fluids. You can also take over-the-counter medicines for coughs, runny noses, and fevers. Multi-symptom drugs are also available at most drug stores.

Colds versus allergies

Having many symptoms of a typical cold, doesn’t mean you have one. You could be suffering from an allergy, which is not contagious. A lot of allergens — such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and mold — can cause sneezing, watery eyes, and stuffy noses. These are often cleared up with over-the-counter allergy medicines. If symptoms persist and the over-the-counter medicines don’t work, see an allergist.

If it’s a common cold and not an allergy, you’ll have to let it run its course. Within a few days your cold should go away, and you’ll be able to go back to work or school.

Once you’re back to your regular routine, let your co-workers or your child’s classmates and teachers know that you’re feeling better, and even though you’re better, always wash your hands so you’re not picking up or spreading germs. You should also remember to sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands.

You can also follow these common sense approaches to slowing the spread of a cold:

In addition to washing your hands, disinfect utensils, your office phone, desk, and keyboard, and any other item that may be shared.

  • Keep a box of tissues on hand, and use them.
  • Don’t share drinks, food, utensils, or anything you touched.
  • Let people know you are getting over a cold, and keep your distance. If they have a cold, don’t hug, kiss, or shake hands with them.

The old tried and true traditions of getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids work. It’s also kind to avoid contact with family and friends so they won’t catch your cold. 

 

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Updated:

September 25, 2017

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN