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Sooner or later, cold or flu germs are going to take up unsolicited residence in your system. And next to the sneezing and coughing, anxiety over passing it along to friends and family might be the most unpleasant part of being sick. But are you in danger of being contagious the entire time you’re ill?
The answer is: pretty much. Cold viruses provoke symptoms like coughing and sneezing, which allow the germs to spread via surface contact or inhaling airborne particles. Even though symptoms might diminish over time—a cold might last three to 10 days—you can still spread illness as long as you’re sniffling or wheezing.
The flu behaves in much the same way, though symptoms tend to be much more severe than with a cold. While you’re most contagious the first three or so days, you can infect others for as long as you have symptoms (the flu generally runs its course in two to 10 days). You’re unlikely to spread germs before you start feeling ill yourself, although the Centers for Disease Control advises that there might be a day before symptoms begin when you’re shedding the virus.
If you can’t help but be near others while sick, try to contain germs by coughing into your hand, washing your hands frequently, and using a new tissue every time you wipe your nose. Doing so will minimize contact with the virus and reduce the chances of sharing your miserable time with others.