How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

Colds are the most commonly occurring infection in the United States, spreading 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. Knowing when you are contagious with a cold is essential to avoid spreading your germs to other people—especially those who could develop serious complications from your illness.

Cold Incubation Period

The standard cold incubation period is 24 to 72 hours, which means you may start to develop cold symptoms anytime between one to three days after exposure. 

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.

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.

When Are You Contagious?

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. 

How Does a Cold Spread?

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.

Protecting Yourself and Others

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 when you have cold symptoms, 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.

Preventing a Cold After Exposure

While there currently is no vaccine or surefire way to prevent a cold, there are some steps you can take if you feel you've been recently exposed to a virus, namely:

  • Getting extra rest
  • Increasing your fluids to stay hydrated
  • Eating chicken noodle soup
  • Boosting your intake of vitamin-C rich foods, such as kiwi, strawberries, citrus, and red peppers

A Word From Verywell

No one enjoys catching a cold—and for some, the common cold can be very dangerous. Take preventive action by increasing your handwashing to stop the spread of germs, running a humidifier in your home (viruses spread more easily in dry air), and limiting your contact with people who may be sick. To that note, if you do get sick, try to stay home from work—not only to allow yourself to rest but to prevent the spread of illness to others.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merck Manual Professional Version. Common Cold. Updated July 2018.

Additional Reading

  • American Lung Association. Facts About The Common Cold. 

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Take everyday precautions to protect others while sick.