How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

Chances are you’ve had one or more colds in the past year. On average, adults get two to three colds a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And young children can get as many as eight.

Colds are viral infections that take hold in your upper respiratory tract. This includes your nose, mouth, throat, and voice box. In some cases, colds can also affect your lower respiratory tract, including your lungs.

You know the symptoms — sneezing, coughing, a runny or stuffy nose, and a sore throat. Colds can leave you feeling crummy for days. They’re a common reason people miss work or school.

“Cold is the most common complaint among all age groups. People have different beliefs over this commonest thing. Having more concrete knowledge about common cold helps in being patient with it, preventing the spread and avoiding unwanted use of antibiotics.” says Sai Swapnika Guttikonda, MD; Franklin Community Medicine-UPMC

No one likes to catch a cold. Here’s what you need to know so you don’t share your cold with others — and others don’t share their cold with you.

How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

Most colds last a week to 10 days. When you have a cold, your symptoms are usually worse in the first two to three days. That’s when you are most likely to spread your cold to others.

In general, you are contagious a few days before your symptoms start until all your symptoms are gone. Most people are contagious about two weeks.

For some people, colds can last longer. People who may have cold symptoms that are more severe or last longer include:

  • Children.
  • Older adults.
  • Smokers.
  • People with underlying conditions or who are immunocompromised — that is, people whose immune system doesn’t work well.

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How Long Can the Cold Virus Live Outside the Body?

More than 200 viruses cause the common cold, according to the American Lung Association. Rhinoviruses — the virus group that causes the most colds — can survive for two hours on your hands and several days on other surfaces. That’s according to a review in Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

Colds are spread through droplets of fluid. When someone with a cold sneezes or coughs, these viral droplets land on nearby objects, such as tables, handrails, or doorknobs.

The most common way to catch a cold is from close contact with someone who has a cold or by touching an object that has the cold virus on it. When you get the virus on your hands and then touch your eyes, mouth or nose, the virus can enter your body.

You may also get infected by inhaling small droplets after someone sneezes or coughs. But most rhinoviruses aren’t spread this way, according to that review.

How Long Does It Take to Catch a Cold From Someone Else?

Unlike the flu, where symptoms come on suddenly, colds take time to develop. Once you catch a cold from someone else, it can take two or three days before you begin to feel symptoms.

If someone you know has a cold, try to avoid or limit contact with them. You are most likely to catch a cold from them in the first few days that they are sick. That’s according to the American Lung Association.

What Should You Do to Avoid Spreading or Catching a Cold?

Colds are hard to prevent. Here are some tips to reduce your chances of catching or spreading a cold:

To reduce your chances of spreading a cold

  • Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Use a tissue to sneeze, cough or blow your nose. Throw out the tissue right away so it doesn’t contaminate any surfaces.
  • If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, to avoid getting the viral droplets on your hands.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after blowing your nose,
  • If you have cold, avoid close contact with others, especially people who have serious health issues.
  • Stay home from work or school, if possible, to avoid spreading a cold to others.

To reduce your chances of catching a cold

  • Avoid close contact with someone who has a cold.
  • Don’t eat or drink from the same plate or glass of someone with a cold.
  • Avoid touching objects that someone with a cold has touched.
  • Wash your hands after coming in contact with someone who has a cold, and after touching something they’ve touched.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

To help prevent catching or spreading colds

  • Disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, and appliance handles when anyone in your house is sick.
  • Wash your hands after using the bathroom or before eating.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. A good rule of thumb is to wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday. Dry your hands using a clean towel or a paper towel.
  • If you can’t wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.

What Helps a Cold?

You can get a cold any time of year. But most colds occur during the colder months, between September and May, according to the ALA.

Colds are often confused with seasonal allergies. You may have seasonal allergies instead of a cold if:

  • You have itchy or watery eyes.
  • You have a rash.
  • Your symptoms last several weeks.

There’s no cure for the common cold. Unlike bacterial infections, such as strep throat, antibiotics don’t help make colds better. To manage your symptoms and speed up recovery from a cold, follow these tips:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Gargle with warm salt water. This helps with a sore throat.
  • Drink lots of fluids. Staying hydrated keeps your nose and throat from drying out. It also keeps your mucus moist, which can help ease congestion.
  • Avoid alcohol or drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, sodas, or energy drinks. Alcohol and caffeine can cause you to get dehydrated, which can make symptoms worse.
  • Take an over-the-counter decongestant, antihistamine, or combination medication. These can help manage congestion, cough, or runny nose.
  • Use cough drops for a sore throat.
  • If you’re a smoker, take a break from smoking or reduce how much you smoke. also, stay away from smoke so you don’t inhale it. Smoking can irritate your nose and throat and cause you to cough even more.

When Should You See a Doctor For a Cold?

Most people with colds don’t need medical care. Colds go away on their own.

In some cases, cold viruses can cause other problems, including bacterial infections, to develop. These are known as secondary infections. They include sinus and ear infections and acute bronchitis.

See your doctor if you develop any of these symptoms:

  • Severe cold symptoms.
  • High fever.
  • Ear pain.
  • Sinus pain or headache.
  • Wheezing.
  • Cough that lingers when other symptoms improve. On average, cold-related coughs last 18 days for adults, according to the National Library of Medicine. For children it can take three weeks to get over a cold-related cough.
  • If you have lung problems or asthma, any flare up of symptoms.
Sources

Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.

Common Cold. MedlinePlus.gov. Link.

Common Colds: Overview. National Library of Medicine. Link.

Diane Pappas. The Common Cold. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 2018. Link.

Upper Respiratory Tract. MedlinePlus.gov. Link.

Lower Respiratory Tract. MedlinePlus.gov. Link.

Facts About the Common Cold. American Lung Association. Link.

How Long Is Someone Infectious After a Viral Infection? NHS.UK. Link.

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