How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

Woman sneezing at bus stop
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No one likes getting sick with a cold. As soon as the symptoms start you probably start thinking about how long you are going to feel like this. But have you ever wondered how long you might be contagious with cold symptoms? Knowing when you are contagious with a cold is important to avoid spreading your germs to other people—especially those who could develop serious complications from your illness.

Cold Symptoms

Common cold symptoms include a runny nose, congestion, coughing, headache and sore throat. Although you may not experience all of these symptoms every time you get sick, if you have some of them without any other significant symptoms (such as high fever, vomiting, etc.), you probably have a cold or some sort of viral infection.

Colds are the most commonly occurring infection in the United States and they spread very easily from person to person. They can be caused by hundreds of different viruses, making it impossible to develop any sort of vaccine or medication to kill or prevent the common cold. Preventing the spread of these viruses and protecting those who might not recover as easily as we do is up to all of us.

If you have a sudden onset of symptoms that include fever, body aches, headache, and cough, you probably have the flu, not a cold. Although the symptoms may be similar, influenza (the virus that causes the flu), can be much more severe.

The contagious period is different for the flu as well. 

How Are Colds Spread?

Colds are most contagious two to four days after your symptoms first develop. However, the virus can live in your body and spread to others for up to three weeks. That's right, you could spread your cold virus germs even after you feel better.

Most colds last for about a week but it's possible to spread the virus long after that. 

Colds are spread through the air and on surfaces. When you are sick, coughing, sneezing and even breathing sends the virus into the air around you and onto every surface (or person) you touch.

A Word From Verywell: What You Can Do

Since you can't stop coughing or breathing when you are sick, the only way to avoid spreading your cold is to try to stay away from as many people as possible. Wash your hands frequently and sanitize everything in your environment when you are feeling better.

In today's fast-paced society, it is practically unheard of to call in sick to work or take the time to recover when you aren't feeling well, but that's exactly what we should all be doing. If we took more time to take care of ourselves and prevent these germs from spreading to everyone around us, we might all get sick a little less often. 

If you simply can't avoid being around others, make sure to cover your cough, wash your hands before you touch someone else, and always before preparing food. You should also take precautions and make an extra effort to stay away from those who may be more likely to get seriously ill from your virus.

Older adults, people with weakened immune systems due to chronic illness or cancer, and young infants can get so sick from cold viruses that they may need to be hospitalized. At times these viruses may even be fatal. Following the simple steps above can prevent this.

Sources:​

Common Cold. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/commoncold.html. 

Facts About The Common Cold. American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/influenza/facts-about-the-common-cold.html. 

Infections: Common Cold. KidsHealth 2012. Nemours Foundation. 

Take everyday precautions to protect others while sick. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/treatment.htm. Published September 9, 2016. 

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