A cold can be contagious for 5 to 7 days, or until symptoms fade

Westend61/Getty ImagesYour cold may be contagious for up to a week, so make sure you take a few days before returning to work.

Just like the flu, a cold is a common virus that is highly contagious and spreads easily from person to person. However, there are key differences when it comes to dealing with your cold and its symptoms.

Here’s what you need to know about how long you’ll carry a contagious cold virus and when you should be able to return to work.

How long is a cold contagious

It’s hard to identify when exactly people stop being contagious after a cold, says Isaac Bogoch, MD, an infectious-disease consultant at the University of Toronto. But colds tend to be most contagious within the first three days the virus enters your body. That’s when you’ll start to feel symptoms including sneezing, a stuffy nose, scratchy throat, and mild fatigue.

Those first few days are also when you’ll likely feel most miserable, so stay home in bed if you can and away from people who you might infect. After that, you still have at least five to seven days left of symptoms before you’ll start to feel normal again, during which time you can still be contagious.

“There is variability as to how long people are contagious after a cold, but it can be up to five to seven days,” Bogoch says.

A good rule of thumb is to assume that you’re contagious for as long as you’re experiencing symptoms. That may be for a week, or, in about 25% of cases, symptoms can last longer, but typically not more than 10 days.

When you can return to work after a cold

Taking a week or more off work is hardly ideal, which is why Bogoch says it’s OK to return to work once you’ve passed the peak of your symptoms and are on the mend.

You may still be contagious, which is why, according to Bogoch, if you feel well enough to return to work, you should practice impeccable hand hygiene to ensure you do not infect others.

That means keeping your hands clean by washing with soap and water or using alcohol rinse periodically. Bogoch also recommends that people seek medical attention if they experience more severe or unusual symptoms.

“If people are having shortness of breath, intractable nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, inability to keep fluids down, or if symptoms don’t go away well after a week,” Bogoch adds, “then you know it’s time to seek medical care because it might not be a common cold.”

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