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Contagious Period for Common Colds

Dear Ask The Doctor:
When is a person the most contagious with a cold? I work in a large company and am being told to go home if I have a cold because we have people with compromised immune systems or spouses with compromised immune systems due to chemo. At least half of the hundred people on just my side of the office are coughing and sneezing and would have to go home. We are being told the first three days of a cold are when you are at your most contagious, that every time you exhale you breathe out bacteria. Lets face it, everywhere we go, we and our family members come across someone with a cold. We are being told if we come to work with a cold we could kill our coworkers or family member who has a compromised immune system. We cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze, use tissues, have hand sanitizers on our desks and use it. We are all conscientious adults here. Should every employee with a cold stay home for 3 days or should the person with the compromised immune system or family member with compromised immune system work from home.


The common cold is usually caused by Adenovirus. It can be easily transmitted by the aerosol route (coughing, sneezing) or a mere handshake. Once a person contracts the virus, he is contagious even 2-3 days BEFORE the appearance of symptoms (but to a lesser degree), which may last up to 2 weeks. During this period, viral replication is happening making transmission easier. It is also true that a common cold can potentially kill someone with a depressed immune system. Their immune system is that bad. Maybe you can try talking to those who are affected. It is up to the doctor on how to deal with infection control. Remember, when you cough, cough on your sleeves, not your hands. This will decrease the ease of transmission. Staying at home for the 1st 3 days of cold symptoms is a reasonable protocol. Those who have spouses undergoing chemo may put on masks all the time; it is not a bad idea. They may also work from home; that way, there is a much lesser chance of acquiring easily transmitted infections. Perhaps you can try talking to your co-workers and try reaching a compromise. I hope this helps. Take care always.

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