Is My Cold or Flu Still Contagious?

By Dr. Joseph DiFranza
Department of Family Medicine – Fitchburg
Reliant Medical Group

We all seem to get sick at the most inopportune time – just before a big birthday party or when a big project at work comes up. So even though our throat is sore, our body aches, and we are sneezing left and right, we don’t want to stay home. However, leaving home with the cold or the flu can often make others around you sick.

Most people’s cold and flu symptoms last for about a week to ten days. You are most contagious one day prior to the start of symptoms until approximately five to seven days after symptoms start. However, in some cases, you can still be contagious for up to two weeks after the onset of symptoms. This means that even though you might feel better and want to go back to work, you are still quite contagious and able to easily spread germs.

Remember that each time you sneeze or cough you release into the air thousands of droplets filled with germs – often as far as six feet away. Anyone in the path of those germs can become ill too. In addition, when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth and then touch another surface those germs can be spread and can often survive for up to 24 hours.

So what’s a busy person to do when they’re sick? If staying home isn’t a possibility, try to do everything possible not to spread germs. This means always coughing or sneezing into your elbow, avoiding close bodily contact with people, and not touching surfaces unless you have to. When you are sick, washing your hands often or using a hand sanitizer can also help prevent the spread of germs to other people.

The following chart can help show you how long you are likely to be contagious when you are ill:

IllnessWhen You Are First ContagiousWhen You Are No Longer Contagious
Flu1 day before symptoms start5-7 days after you become sick with symptoms
Cold1-2 days before symptoms startTwo weeks after you’re exposed to the virus
StomachBefore symptoms startUp to two weeks after you’ve recovered


Keep in mind that if you are really coughing up a storm, sneezing profusely, or generally feel totally miserable, staying home is probably a good idea anyway. Ditto if you experience any vomiting, diarrhea or have a fever. After all, your body needs rest to recover from an illness properly. If you feel you are suffering from more than a typical bout of a cold or flu, it’s a good idea to see your medical provider.

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