Is The Common Cold Contagious?

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed
October 19, 2021

The common cold is a very, well, common viral infection in children and adults.

Although it is a mild illness that’s easily overcome and generally not cause for concern, it can lead to spending a few days resting in bed.

So it’s no wonder that when someone around you starts sniffling and coughing, you worry about how contagious the common cold is and how you can keep from getting sick yourself. 

In this article, we’ll first explore the symptoms, causes, and treatment of the common cold.

Then we’ll discuss if the common cold is contagious, including how colds spread and when to go back to work or school after having a cold.

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Common Cold Basics

The common cold is aptly named: Each year, millions of Americans come down with the virus. While there is no cure for the common cold, it is considered a minor illness and shouldn’t set you back more than a week or two. 

Symptoms

The symptoms of a common cold aren’t too serious and shouldn’t cause too much disruption to your daily routine.

Although each instance of the common cold can present differently, the most common signs of a cold include: 

Causes

The common cold isn’t caused by one thing.

Instead, more than 200 viruses can lead to feeling under the weather.

Rhinoviruses are responsible for 10-50% of all colds, while coronaviruses account for another 10-15% and influenza viruses cause 5-15%

These viruses spread through droplets released when a sick person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

If another person inhales these droplets or touches something contaminated with them and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth without first washing their hands, they are likely to become sick.

Because so many viruses cause the common cold, scientists haven’t yet created a vaccine to reduce the risk of illness. 

Treatment

There is no cure for the common cold, but there are many ways to treat the symptoms and feel better in the meantime:

  • Get plenty of rest: Spending time in bed or on the couch will conserve energy for your body to fight the virus.
  • Drink lots of liquids: Liquids help break up congestion and mucus. Drinking hot tea or eating soup may also help clear up your nasal passages and make a sore throat feel better.
  • Consider over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicine: Different medications may help with different symptoms. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can alleviate fever and some pain and discomfort. Nasal spray and tablet decongestants including (Sudafed), phenylephrine (Sudafed PE), and fluticasone (Flonase) can help open up a stuffy nose. And cough medicine like dextromethorphan (Robitussin, Vicks 44 Cough Relief) and guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin) can either stop the cough reflex or make coughs more productive. Whatever you take, be sure to follow the directions on the package and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking multiple medicines to be sure you don’t accidentally overdose on any one medication. Also talk to your pediatrician about the best options for children.
  • Use a humidifier: This or a cool-mist vaporizer adds moisture to the air, which may help with congestion.

Is the Common Cold Contagious? 

A good rule of thumb is that if you are experiencing symptoms of a cold, then you most likely are contagious.

However, you are usually most contagious before symptoms present themselves and in the first few days of illness.

Learning the different stages of a cold can help you determine when to return to work or school.

What is an incubation period? 

The incubation period is the time between the moment you are exposed to a virus and when you first show symptoms.

For the common cold, this period lasts between 24-72 hours. Even though you do not have symptoms, you can spread the virus during this time.

How long symptoms last

The symptoms of a common cold can last anywhere from 7-10 days and can vary during that period. 

Following the incubation period is the cold’s peak, when symptoms are the most severe.

The peak lasts from about day four until day seven.

Following the cold’s peak, symptoms should begin to ease up before completely ceasing around day 10-14.

Be sure to monitor your symptoms and rest as needed throughout this time.

How colds spread

A sick person spreads a cold by coughing, sneezing, or even talking, all of which release droplets containing the virus.

If someone else inhales these droplets, they may become sick.

The common cold also spreads when droplets land on objects (such as countertops, elevator buttons, or utensils) and someone touches those objects and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth without washing their hands.

Children tend to catch colds about 6-10 times a year, while adults usually get 2-4 colds annually, typically in the colder months when people spend more time indoors with each other.

How to prevent spread 

Some simple healthy habits may help you reduce the chances of spreading a cold to others or catching a cold: 

  • To avoid spreading a cold: As soon as you start experiencing symptoms, distance yourself from others. Do not sneeze or cough without fully covering your mouth, and wash your hands after doing so. Disinfect any surfaces you touch and do not share objects. Also stay home when you are sick.
  • To avoid catching a cold: Keep your distance from sick friends, family members, or coworkers. If you are in close contact with an ill person, make sure to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, or mouth.

When to go back to work or school

Do not rush your healing process by returning to a normal routine too quickly.

Avoid returning to work or school in person until all of your symptoms have subsided because you are contagious until your symptoms resolve.

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When to See a Doctor

A cold is not a serious illness, and you should feel relief after a week or so.

However, consult a doctor if your symptoms become severe or remain present after 10 days, as those can be signs of other illnesses.

Also, if you are experiencing a high-grade fever above 102° F (38.9°C), seek professional medical help right away.

If your child has a common cold with a fever and is younger than three months old, see their pediatrician. Also see a pediatrician if a child of any age has severe cold symptoms.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you exercise if you have a cold?
Mild to moderate exercise is fine if you have a cold. However, listen to your body: You may want to reduce the length and the intensity of your normal exercise routine. It’s also best to avoid the gym or in-person classes so you do not infect others.
Are some people more susceptible to catching a cold than others?
Yes, some people appear to be more susceptible to catching a cold than others. Research suggests that genes play a role, and those born with an autoimmune disease are also at a higher risk of catching colds.
Is COVID-19 more contagious than the common cold?
Yes, COVID-19 is more contagious than the common cold, and it’s also a much more serious illness. Be sure to wear a mask, get vaccinated against COVID-19, and keep your distance from others to avoid catching the cold or COVID-19. If you think you may have COVID-19, stay away from others and contact your healthcare provider right away.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.