Here's how soon you can truthfully say, "don't worry, I'm not contagious."
The holiday season is all about sharing: warm embraces with family and friends, heaping spreads of food, good cheer galore, and, inevitably, cold and flu bugs.
But should you skip out on all the fun just because a cold or the flu has left you feeling a little under the weather? As long as you’re not sweating bullets with a fever and come armed with a pocketful of Ricola drops in case you break out in a coughing fit, it can’t do any harm to join the party, right?
Not so fast, experts say.
“In general, cold/flu symptoms may last for about a week to ten days,” Margarita Rohr, MD, clinical instructor of internal medicine at NYU Langone Health, tells Health. “And you are most contagious one day prior to the start of symptoms until five to seven days after symptoms start. In some cases, you can still be contagious for up to two weeks after onset of symptoms.”
Translation: Even though you might feel better, it doesn’t mean you are better, and even though you mean well, you’re spreading no joy by spreading your germs around. Simply put, “you should consider yourself contagious if you still feel under the weather,” Sherif Mossad, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.
Though no one wants to spend the holidays on the sidelines, do your friends and coworkers a favor and take one for the team, advises Dr. Rohr: “In an ideal world, it would be best to avoid social activities for 5-7 days after the onset of symptoms. For returning to work, I usually suggest waiting until 24 hours fever-free. If you feel lousy or you’re sneezing and coughing significantly, just stay home.” And controlling your fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen doesn’t count, either: You’re still contagious even if you’re using meds to lower your temperature, says Dr. Rohr.
If you absolutely have to show your face while you’re recuperating, at least come with good cold/flu etiquette. Pack your travel-size Kleenex (from $4; amazon.com), and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. “Best in a disposable tissue, second best in your elbow,” says Dr. Mossad. “Don’t cough or sneeze into your hand.”
Remember to wash your hands frequently, especially after touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and particularly before coming in for a tight hug with Aunt Jane. And steer well clear of the crudité so you don't get cold or flu particles on the food. “When a sick person sneezes or coughs, the virus can be sent up to 6 feet away,” notes Dr. Rohr.
And if you find yourself on the other side of the equation, warily shaking hands with a nose-runner at the office holiday fete and then realize you're sniffling and sneezing the next morning? Rest up, but try to temper your instinct to assign blame: It actually takes 2-3 days, and sometimes up to a week, from time of exposure to developing symptoms, Dr. Rohr explains. So you probably picked it up from someone else earlier in the week. Grrr.