How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

Millions of cases of the common cold occur in the United States each year, spreading easily from person to person. Colds 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 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.

Most colds last for about a week, but it's possible to spread the virus long after that, as it can live in your body for up to three weeks. That means you could spread your germs and make others sick even after you feel better.

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.

The virus can live on surfaces for several hours, making it possible for others to pick up long after you've, say, left a room.

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 as well. Then, when you're feeling better, sanitize everything in your environment (e.g., sheets, doorknobs, etc.)

In today's fast-paced society, it is not uncommon to hear that people come into work instead of taking time to recover when they aren't feeling well—but you should do just the opposite. Not only will getting the rest you need help you get better, but staying away from others will prevent the spread of illness too.

If you simply can't avoid being around others when you have cold symptoms, make sure to cover your cough, and wash your hands before you touch someone else or prepare 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 end, if you do get sick, try to stay home from work—not only to allow yourself to rest but to protect 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 process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Updated February 11, 2019.

  2. Tesini BL. Common Cold. Merck Manual Professional Version. Updated June 2018.

  3. Mayo Clinic. Cold and flu viruses: How long can they live outside the body?

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People at High Risk for Severe RSV Infection. Updated June 26, 2018.

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