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Sharp Health News

Are you most contagious in the first three days of a cold?

Nov. 9, 2015

When is a cold most contagious?

Your head swims with competing cold myths as winter season approaches. Are you the most contagious before you get the cold, three days after you show symptoms or for weeks afterward?

According to Dr. Cathy Sundsmo, family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, the sad truth is that all of the myths above are true, in most cases.

“You are contagious one to two days before your symptoms even start showing,” explains Dr. Sundsmo. “You are the most contagious in the first few days after showing symptoms, but you can still spread the illness as long as you are still shedding the virus through nasal or other secretions, which can be for weeks.”

Dr. Sundsmo says that direct contact with respiratory particles is the most contagious way to contract a cold — think the spit particles that come from a sneeze or cough.

She encourages you to cover your mouth and nose with your hands when you cough or sneeze, but only if you are able to wash your hands afterwards. If you are not able to wash your hands immediately, she suggests coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow so that you do not directly spread the respiratory droplets by touching a shared surface.

“The only thing that can get rid of a cold is time, but you can do a few things to help your body feel better,” says Dr. Sundsmo. She offers these tips of getting through a cold more comfortably:

  • Get lots of rest: this is most important
  • Take symptom-relief medications
  • Stay well-hydrated with warm or cold liquids
  • Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for body aches and fever
  • Use salt-water gargles, honey, lozenges or throat spray for a sore throat

Because sleep is the number one weapon in battling a cold, Dr. Sundsmo suggests using a humidifier while you sleep and taking symptom-relief remedies that have a drowsy side effect, if medically tolerable.

With the start of the holidays and the accompanying cold weather, the cold is bound to hit your office or circle of friends and family. Although the best defense is to avoid those showing cold symptoms, Dr. Sundsmo knows that is not always easy.

“The most important thing is to not to touch your own nose, eyes or mouth after touching a contaminated surface,” she says. “Make sure to wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer as often as needed — especially after touching any surfaces that could potentially host viral particles.”

The bottom line of this common cold debate? Stay home and rest if you are feeling cold symptoms coming on and avoid sharing the cold at your work or school.

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