How Long Is a Cold Contagious?

Unfortunately, you may not be in the clear as soon as your nose stops running.

The common cold is—as the name suggests—incredibly common. There are over one billion colds in the United States each year. The average adult has about two to three colds yearly, and children have even more than that. About 200 viruses cause the common cold, including:

  • Rhinoviruses
  • Adenoviruses
  • Coronaviruses

Colds are also highly contagious, spread through the air, close contact with infected people, or an infected person's fecal matter if they don't wash their hands properly after using the bathroom.

On average, that contagious period lasts for about two weeks. Specifically, you will become contagious a few days before your symptoms begin. And you are most contagious when your symptoms are the most severe, typically during the first two to three days of your illness.

And remember that recovering from a cold doesn't necessarily mean you're not contagious anymore. So, here's what you need to know about exactly how long colds are contagious.

Cold Contagious Period

The incubation period, the time between when you're infected and when you begin to show symptoms of a cold, is about two to three days. Unfortunately, it's during that time when you may be most contagious, Jazmine Oliver, MD, a hospital medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Health

"Most common colds are caused by viruses. And the highest infectious period is usually one to two days prior to symptom onset and during the first two to three days of symptoms," said Dr. Oliver.

But that's not always a hard-and-fast rule. As long as you're still coughing or showing symptoms of any kind, you may still be contagious. "Sometimes, you may have a nagging cough that lingers for an additional week or two" after you've started feeling better," added Dr. Oliver.

The viruses that cause colds are very contagious, spreading from person to person through the air and close personal contact. Cold viruses also spread when droplets land on objects and someone else touches that object and then their eyes, mouth, or nose.

In rare cases, according to Dr. Oliver, you can still be infectious even after symptoms resolve due to viral shedding, when a virus replicates in the body and makes its way out into the environment.


Some of the most common symptoms of a cold include the following:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Body aches

Those symptoms may be challenging to differentiate from the flu or COVID-19. But while some colds can cause an elevated body temperature, fevers are usually more common in cases of the flu, COVID-19, or other viruses.

Once those symptoms appear, they can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks. And in the majority of cases, a cold is most often not contagious after the first week.

Risk Factors and Prevention

Certain risk factors may make you more likely to catch a cold. While it's possible to get a cold anytime during the year, you are most likely to get one during the fall and winter months, commonly called cold and flu season. 

Young children and older adults are more susceptible to colds, and infants and young children will typically get colds more often than adults in a given year.

Close contact with someone sick with a cold will also increase your chances of developing a cold yourself. That includes crowded public spaces where you are near others, including schools and public transportation like buses, subways, and airplanes.

However, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself against the common cold, including:

  • Properly wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
  • Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap isn't available for hand washing.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Stay away from sick people.

But because the common cold is so, well, common, chances are that it will be challenging to completely protect yourself against a cold virus. But even in that case, you can still take those steps to save someone from the fate that befell you. And that has a lot to do with knowing how long cold viruses last and how contagious they are.

Some steps you can take to protect others when you're sick include:

  • Stay at home, especially at the start of a cold, and keep children out of school or daycare.
  • Avoid hugging, kissing, shaking hands, and other close contact with others.
  • Move away from people before coughing or sneezing.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your shirt sleeve when you cough or sneeze.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs.

A Quick Review

Your best bet for protecting yourself and others during cold and flu season is to continue taking the necessary preventative measures, such as proper handwashing and physically distancing yourself from sick people. 

And if you do come down with a cold, it may be wise to track your symptoms. If you can, isolate as much as possible during the first few days when a cold can be most contagious—and remain vigilant until you're back to feeling 100%.

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  1. National Library of Medicine. Common cold.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold.

  4. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Common colds: Overview.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cold versus flu.

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