It’s normal to come down with a cold a few times a year, but it never really gets any easier. The runny nose, sore throat, and cough—not to mention that horrible feeling when you realize you’ve passed your misery on to someone else!
But it can be hard to know when, exactly, you’re contagious—or if someone in your home or workplace is. Contagiousness is actually a bit complex. To figure out when it’s relatively safe to interact again, it helps to understand what you’re dealing with when you’re sick.
Ahead, we're sharing how long colds typically last and how long you're contagious, with the help of some expert insight.
First, what is the common cold?
The common cold is a respiratory illness that can be caused by more than 200 different viruses, although rhinoviruses are the most common cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Viruses that cause colds can spread from person to person through the air and close personal contact.
You can also get a cold from coming into contact with infected poop or respiratory secretions from an infected person, the CDC says.
What are the symptoms of a cold?
The cold can cause the following symptoms, according to the CDC:
runny nose and congestion
headaches and body aches
fatigue and brain fog
How long is a cold contagious?
It’s tough to issue a blanket statement on contagiousness with colds, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Colds are caused by a variety of different viruses and each has its own specific contagious period,” he explains. “On average, it is a couple of days, usually related to degree of symptoms.” Worth noting: The CDC recommends that doctors consider the “duration of precaution” (a.k.a. the contagious period) to be the entire time you feel sick, at least with rhinovirus.
Even though most people aren’t tested for the type of cold they have, it’s still a good practice to assume that you’re infectious “while you are symptomatic,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. Basically, if you’re sneezing and coughing, you should at least think that there’s a possibility that you could pass your cold on to someone else.
That said, you’re likely most contagious in the two to three days after you first develop symptoms, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Can you do anything to shorten the contagious period?
Not really. While Dr. Watkins points out that there’s some data to suggest that taking zinc lozenges right when cold symptoms start may help reduce the length of time you’re sick by a day, experts can’t say if that has an impact on how well you can pass on the virus to someone else.
“There’s no specific means that’s been proven to decrease contagiousness,” Dr. Adalja says. Dr. Schaffner agrees. “You just have to ride it out,” he says.
How to avoid spreading a cold
Doctors say there are a few things you can do to keep the people around you from getting sick:
Wear a mask in public and around people in your household
Sneeze and cough into the crook of your elbow
Try to stay home as much as possible
Wash your hands often
Try to avoid crowds
“If you can, don’t go to work or school for the first couple of days,” Dr. Schaffner says, although he acknowledges that many people won’t do that. If you need to be around other people, Dr. Adalja suggests wearing your mask to help keep your germs to yourself.
Dr. Schaffner also points out that, given that COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly across the country, it’s a good idea to make sure your “cold” symptoms are just that by getting tested for COVID-19. (An at-home test should work fine, he says.) “We’ll be doing a lot of testing for cold-like symptoms this fall,” Dr. Schaffner says.
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