How you catch and pass a cold

You have a basic idea of how colds are passed. Someone sneezes, they don’t cover their mouth, and their germs float on over to get you sick. But how does that work exactly?

The science

When you have a cold, you become contagious before your symptoms even start, and you continue to be able to pass your cold on until your symptoms go away. That’s up to two weeks of carrying around and potentially spreading your cold, though it’s most contagious for the first three days. “Contagious” doesn’t mean that your whole body automatically becomes radioactive and infects anyone you touch, but fluid from your body (saliva, snot, phlegm, etc.) is infected and can pass the infection on to others in a few different ways.

If you have infected droplets of fluid on your skin, most things you touch can carry the infection for a period of time. Non-porous surfaces (tables, cups, door handles) are the ones most likely to spread germs and infect others. If you touch another person directly through something like a handshake, and that person touches their own eyes, mouth, or nose, they could get the infection. Coughing and sneezing can also spread infected droplets of fluid through the air and pass an infection through another person’s eyes, mouth, or nose.

The practice

How colds technically get passed is in the science of germs and infections, but the reality of how they’re passed is all about habits and behaviors. Contrary to popular belief, it’s most common for colds to be passed through direct skin-to-skin contact and contact with infected objects and surfaces, not uncovered coughing and sneezing.

When you’re sick, it’s best to totally avoid shaking hands or sharing drinks or food. Washing your hands is a good idea, but you can still infect people with direct or indirect contact. If you have a cold, try to avoid touching shared objects and surfaces when you can.

Even though they’re not the primary cause of catching a cold, coughing and sneezing can still definitely spread your infection, so it’s still important to make sure to carefully cover your mouth and nose when you’re sick. Sneeze or cough into tissues, throw them away right after you use them, and wash your hands right away.

How to prevent it

Knowledge of how colds are passed is all well and good, but how do you make sure it doesn’t happen? It’s a little harder when you’re a parent and your child is sick, but there are some steps you can take to help prevent it from spreading. Make sure everyone washes their hands regularly, don’t share any objects (cups, plates, utensils, toys, towels…anything), disinfect shared surfaces, and use hand sanitizer. If you can limit the time you and other family members spend close to the sick person in your house, it can also help prevent the cold from spreading. It might sound harsh, but you are far better equipped to care for your family when you’re not sick too!

  • “Common cold.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  • “Common cold.” NHS Choices. National Health Service. April 30, 2015.
  • “The Common Cold.” The University of Toledo Medical Center. The University of Toledo. Accessed June 9, 2017.

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