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If You're Sick, How Long Are You Contagious?

By Laurie Marbas, M.D. ; Updated August 14, 2017

We all know that dreaded tickle in the throat. Many of us pop a zinc lozenge and continue on with our day. But, if you don’t stop and rest, that harmless tickle can turn into a full-blown sickness leaving you flat on your back with a blanket and a box of tissues.

If you’re wondering what you have, exactly – a cold, the flu or even strep throat – as well as how long you need to sequester yourself from society, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a guide to help you differentiate between five of the most common infections, including when to stay home from work and when to see a doctor.

1. Common Cold

They don’t call it “common” for nothing – just about every person on the planet has had a cold in their lives. Symptoms include headache, sore or scratchy throat, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing and watery eyes.

Causes It is most often caused by the rhinovirus, which is spread through the air (when someone coughs or sneezes) or with close personal contact, such as shaking hands with someone who is sick.

This virus can live on the surface of things from days to weeks. So, be sure to wash your hands frequently and wipe down surfaces with a disinfecting cleaner.

When am I contagious? Symptoms can last seven to 10 days and you are contagious during this entire time, however you are most contagious during the first couple days of symptoms.

Stay at home while you're sick to prevent spreading the virus, and if you have to sneeze, cover your mouth with the crook of your elbow rather than your hand.

When should I go to the doctor? The common cold is caused by a virus, which doesn’t have a medical cure. (Bacteria, on the other hand, are killed off by antibiotics, which are prescribed by a doctor.) Therefore, there is no reason to go to a doctor if you have a cold. The virus "runs its course" in the body for about seven to 10 days, so it's important to get lots of rest and make healthy choices during this time to keep your immune system strong.

However, if your cold symptoms last more than 10 days, or if your symptoms are severe at any point such as a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, you should call your doctor immediately.

2. The Flu

The flu virus is constantly changing. I recommend getting a flu shot every year to combat the virus’ most recent incarnation. Symptoms of the flu are similar to a cold, but more severe and also include fever, chills and terrible body aches. As the saying goes, if you feel like you were “hit by a truck,” you probably have the flu.

Causes The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which spreads in the same way a cold virus spreads – through airborne droplets released when someone sneezes or coughs, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the nose or mouth.

Like the cold virus, influenza can live on the surface of things from days to weeks. Therefore, thorough and frequent hand washing and disinfecting high-traffic areas are key prevention measures.

When am I contagious? The flu is contagious one day before symptoms and up to seven days after becoming ill, so stay home for at least 24 hours until after the fever has resolved.

When should I go to the doctor? If you are fairly positive you have the flu you should see your doctor immediately as you may benefit from an antiviral flu medication if seen within the first 48 hours of symptoms occurring.

Complications of the flu, such as pneumonia, can be severe and even life-threatening. Thousands of people in the U.S. die every year from the flu. It is very important to seek medical care immediately if you have shortness or breath or sudden worsening of your symptoms.

3. Pinkeye

Pinkeye, or conjunctivitis, is another common infection that affects the eyes. Symptoms include pink or red color in the whites of the eyes, tearing, yellow to green discharge, itching, burning and crusting of the eyelids. If you wake up in the morning with an eye crusted shut, that would be pinkeye.

Causes We touch our face and eyes unconsciously more than a hundred times per day. Pinkeye is caused when you have a virus or bacteria on your fingers and you touch your eyes, so it’s important to keep your hands as clean as possible.

Pinkeye is also commonly spread through using and sharing contaminated makeup, particularly mascara. If you get pinkeye, do not wear makeup until it clears and throw away the eye makeup you were previously using as it is most likely contaminated. Pinkeye can also spread by using unclean tissues and towels when wiping your face, as well as not cleaning contact lenses properly.

When am I contagious? Since pinkeye is highly contagious, you should stay home until you no longer have eye discharge.

When should I go to the doctor? If there is discharge or pus coming from the eye you have a bacterial infection and you should call your doctor immediately for antibiotics. If your eyes are red and watery, however, you most likely have a viral infection and it will clear without medication in a few days as long as your immune system is strong. In this case, apply a cool compress to the eyes to relieve symptoms.

4. Strep Throat

Have that razor-blade feeling when you swallow? I’m afraid you’ve got strep throat. This condition has all of the symptoms of a severe cold, but with swollen lymph nodes, swollen tonsils with white patches on them and a sandpaper-like pink rash on the skin.

Causes Strep throat is caused by Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, which is highly contagious and requires antibiotics. This bacterium is spread through airborne droplets when someone infected coughs or sneezes. It also lives in the sick person’s saliva so avoid sharing food and drinks, or other saliva-swapping activities.

When am I contagious? Individuals with strep throat are contagious until they have taken antibiotics for 24 hours.

When should I go to the doctor? If you think you have strep throat you should see your doctor immediately to get antibiotics to prevent severe complications. In addition to antibiotics, you can drink warm liquids, take over-the-counter pain relievers, and suck on cough drops to ease symptoms.

5. Sinus Infection

If your cold symptoms last longer than 10 days, you may have developed a sinus infection. Sometimes a cold causes mucus to build up behind the nose and the drainage channels in your face (AKA your sinuses) get blocked. This build-up of mucus is a hotbed for germs to settle in. This infection is also known as sinusitis because it causes inflammation, pressure and pain of the sinuses.

Other symptoms include headache, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, fever, cough, fatigue, loss of smell, dental pain and bad breath. If you blow your nose and see thick yellow or green mucus, that’s a sure sign of a sinus infection.

Causes Sinusitis is caused by either bacteria or a virus infecting the mucus that lines the sinuses. The infection spreads through germ-carrying droplets released into the air by coughing, sneezing or nose blowing by those who are sick.

When am I contagious? If you have a sinus infection, stay at home until your fever has resolved.

When should I go to the doctor? Most sinus infections go away without treatment, but go to your doctor if your yellow or green nasal discharge continues for more than a week or if your fever becomes greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

In general, the best ways to prevent the spread of all these infections are to avoid sick individuals and wash your hands thoroughly and frequently throughout the day. Also, be sure to dispose of contaminated tissues quickly and disinfect high-traffic objects, such as door handles, countertops, sinks and toilets, with a bleach derivative.

It's also important to remember that viruses and bacteria are around us at all times. So perhaps the most crucial tip is to keep your immune system strong – by eating healthy, taking a multivitamin, getting enough sleep, reducing stress and not smoking cigarettes – to fight off germs and prevent infection.

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