Cold season is looming once again — that seemingly interminable time of year ranging from early September to as late as April — when you, your neighbors, and maybe your kids come home feeling stuffed up and achy. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the seasonal spike in colds is likely connected to chilly weather because people spend extended time indoors with others, and the dry, cold air tends to dry out nasal passages, making them more vulnerable to infection.
“The common cold spreads quickly and easily,” says Janice Johnston, MD, chief medical officer and cofounder of Redirect Health. “Symptoms of the common cold appear between one and three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus.” Though symptoms of the cold can vary from person to person, Johnston says signs generally include a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, nasal congestion, body aches, mild headaches, sneezing, and the general feeling of being unwell. However, if you’re experiencing these symptoms, you should always confirm it’s not COVID rather than a simple cold.
Unfortunately, most of us will catch a cold at one point or another. The CDC estimates that most adults will have two or three colds a year, with children experiencing even more. One of the best ways to minimize the impact of cold season — and protect others — is to understand how colds spread and how long a cold is contagious.
How Do You Catch a Cold?
The common cold isn’t one particular illness but rather many different respiratory viruses that we collectively refer to as colds, according to the CDC. While the rhinovirus is the most common, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs), adenovirus, and other viruses can also cause colds.
“People catch the common cold much like any virus, through the spread of the virus from an infected person to others through air and close personal contact,” says Dr. Johnston. Exposure happens when people spread the cold through sneezing, coughing, or touching surfaces — all of which spread respiratory droplets that others can come into contact with, Dr. Johnston explains.
How Long Is a Cold Contagious?
Unfortunately, a cold can last up to three weeks — which means you can be contagious for as long. After contracting a cold virus, symptoms take one to three days to develop, peak about three days into the cold, and last around 10 days after, Dr. Johnston says.
People are considered contagious a day or two before symptoms begin and will continue to be contagious for as long as symptoms last, usually a week or two, Dr. Johnston says. Those with a common cold are the most contagious during the first two to three days when symptoms are at their worst, per the UK’s National Health Service.
The good news? Eventually, a cold will go away on its own, Dr. Johnston says.
How to Avoid Spreading a Cold
If you have a cold, the best thing to do is avoid close contact with others. “Kissing, hugging, or shaking hands create incredibly close contact between those who are infected and those who want to avoid getting sick,” says Dr. Johnston.
To avoid spreading the virus, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, and disinfect frequently touched surfaces regularly. One study found that rhinoviruses can survive as long as two hours on human hands and up to several days on other surfaces (like, for example, your kitchen countertops).
Remember, there’s no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics will not help with cold symptoms, as cold viruses are not caused by bacterial infections (which is what antibiotics treat). Dr. Johnston says the best thing you can do to alleviate symptoms is drink plenty of water, rest, and use over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and cough syrup.
Sometimes, a cold can develop into something more serious, like an ear infection or strep throat, says Dr. Johnston. If your symptoms don’t resolve on their own after 10 days or feel severe or unusual, the CDC recommends seeing your doctor.