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man coughing into his elbow

How long are you contagious when you’re sick?

By Jayne Morgan, M.D.,
Executive director of Health and Community Education

The holidays are upon us and there is a lot to spread beyond good cheer this season. As we re-enter the world of hugs, kisses, embraces, and friends and family time, swirling in the wind are invisible possibilities that could severely put a damper on your holiday festivities and celebrations. So, let’s review the most common three virus downers to ensure you are ready with both discernment and information.

How long is the common cold contagious?

The cold can be spread for up to two weeks, including before symptoms even appear. In fact, you will have the ability to spread the cold virus to others for a few days before your symptoms begin. That’s why we see it “go through” households.

You are contagious for the entire period of time symptoms are present, all the way until they disappear. Keep in mind, however, when your symptoms are at their worst—generally the first two to three days—you are at your most infectious.

Vaccine available? Currently, there’s no vaccine for the common cold.

How long is the flu contagious?

The flu is the most contagious within the first three to four days of symptoms. However, it continues to be infectious both before and after days three and four.

Additionally, please remember those with weakened immune systems or babies could be infectious longer.

Vaccine available? Why, yes, there is! You can get a flu vaccine at most pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

How long is COVID-19 contagious?

COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is probably not contagious after 10 days of infection, especially if your symptoms have completely resolved. Even if mild symptoms remain, you are likely not contagious after 10 days.

However, if you have a weakened immune system or severe illness (requiring hospitalization, intensive care or even intubation), you can be contagious for up to three weeks or more.

Vaccine available? Yes. Vaccines and bivalent boosters are available. Currently, only 10% of the population has received the new Omicron-specific bivalent booster.  Consider getting vaccinated ahead of the holidays to help you enjoy safe family time. Also, remember that free access to these vaccines and boosters will likely phase out in early 2023.

In just comparing the flu with COVID-19, keep in mind that COVID-19 can cause more severe illness, may take longer to show symptoms and may be contagious longer. COVID-19 also is more contagious and currently spreads more easily than the flu.

Telling the difference in symptoms may be difficult. The good news is that testing is available for both. Remember that a negative test on one, does not mean a negative test for the other and vice versa. COVID-19 and the flu must be tested separately. However, you can be vaccinated/boosted for both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

Have a safe, smart, and healthy holiday season!

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