When is a cold contagious? Tips and tricks on how to stop spreading the lurgy

By | October 12, 2021

The common cold does what it says on the tin. It’s everywhere, especially in the run up to winter. What is a little harder to find however, is a clear answer about when it is contagious. The trouble is, it can vary from case to case, person to person.

On average, adults in the UK each have between two to four colds per year, although these may be harder to spot amidst the prevalence of Covid-19.

Colds are highly contagious: they spread through the air, close contact with infected people and even by not washing your hands properly after visiting the toilet.

Even if you take all of the proper measures — like hand washing regularly with soap and water, keeping away from people you know are ill and trying not to touch your face — you are still likely to pick one up at some point in the year.

When are colds contagious?

Woman sneezing
Stay home and avoid others if you think you could be contagious ( Getty Images/iStockphoto)

However, when the inevitable happens and you find yourself with a runny nose, there are things you can do to help stop the spread to others — firstly, knowing when you’re contagious.

US-based health information service MedlinePlus say the incubation period for the colds – the time after you contract the illness but don’t have symptoms – ranges from around two to three days.

Frustratingly however, this is also when you are likely to be at your most contagious.

Once they’ve arrived, symptoms are likely to last between two days and two weeks, although it is likely it wont be contagious after the first week in the majority of cases.

But this where is gets confusing, because no matter how much time has passed, if you’re still coughing or exhibiting symptoms it is still possible to be contagious.

Because of this, the best thing to do is to protect yourself and be considerate of others by practising regular hand washing and avoiding ill people.

Meanwhile, if you’re ill then track your symptoms and isolate as much as possible in the early days when you are likely to be at your most contagious, remaining aware of contact with others until all symptoms have completely passed.

What are the main symptoms of the common cold?

Poorly man
Cold’s are usually most contagious at the start of your illness ( Getty Images)

  • A blocked or runny nose
  • A sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Coughs
  • Sneezing
  • A raised temperature
  • Pressure in your ears and face
  • Loss of taste and smell

NHS cold advise

Woman in bed
The NHS recommend that you rest up if you are poorly ( Getty Images/AsiaPix RF)

  • Rest and sleep
  • Keep warm
  • Drink plenty of water (fruit juice or squash mixed with water is OK) to avoid dehydration
  • Gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat (not suitable for children)

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Mirror – Health