How Long is Someone Contagious With the Flu? Here's What Doctors Have to Say
Consider this permission to take a few *extra* days off.
With the flu, you know you're down for the count as soon as it hits you—the fever, muscle aches, and cough are enough to make anyone want to hibernate for a few days (as you should!)
But what happens when you start feeling better, like when your fever breaks and your cough starts to sound a little less menacing? As long as you’re not sweating bullets and come armed with a pocketful of lozenges 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 may mean well, you're not doing anyone any favors 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 too much time 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 five to seven 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.”
Also important: 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: First and foremost, always 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," he adds, and definitely don't hack open mouthed into the air: "When a sick person sneezes or coughs, the virus can be sent up to 6 feet away," notes Dr. Rohr.
While you're still contagious, it's also important to remember to wash your hands frequently, especially after touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. And nix any food- or drink-sharing until you're feeling 100 percent again.
Meanwhile, if you find yourself on the other side of the equation, warily shaking hands with a nose-runner at then realizing you're sniffling and sneezing the next morning, rest up, but try to temper your instinct to assign blame: It actually takes two to three 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.
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