Colds and Flu Are Contagious Much Longer Than You Think

By Minda ZetlinCo-author, The Geek Gap@MindaZetlin

You wake up feeling crummy. Your throat is sore. You have no energy and no appetite. You strongly suspect that you’re coming down with a cold or maybe the flu. But. There’s an important meeting at work and you’re the one who’s supposed to lead the meeting. Or maybe there’s a ton of work to do and if you don’t go in, you’ll be dumping all of it on your team members. And so you bundle up, stuff some tissues in your pocket and drag yourself to the office.

I know this sounds familiar because we’ve all done it, including me. And a zillion cold remedy commercials have encouraged us to take a pill that will take care of our symptoms so we can ignore the cold and go right back to our desks. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Not only are you making yourself less productive by working instead of resting when you’re sick, you can kill the productivity of the entire office if others catch your illness too. In fact, even if you’re just a little bit unwell, or were sick but are now feeling almost completely better, you can still spread contagion throughout your workplace.

Here are the best things you can do to make sure a cold or flu doesn’t wipe out your whole office this flu season. If you’re the boss, try to get everyone to follow these rules. 

1. A fever stays home. No exceptions.

If you have a fever, you are highly contagious and highly unlikely to do any useful work. Stay home, no matter what. If you’re the boss and an employee seems like he or she has a fever, send that employee home. Incidentally, there’s been some debate lately about what actually constitutes a “fever” since not everyone has a body temperature that adheres exactly to 98.6 degrees. (For example, my own normal temperature is a bit cooler than that.) The CDC defines a fever is a temperature that’s higher than normal for you. 

Feel free to take aspirin, ibuprofen or other fever-reducing medicine, but that doesn’t mean you can head back to the office. A fever that’s being “masked” by medication still counts as a fever.

2. Consider yourself contagious at least until your symptoms are completely gone, or for two weeks, whichever comes first.

That’s right. That thing you heard about how you’re only contagious for the first day or two that you’re sick? It’s balderdash. That’s probably when you’re most contagious, but you can still be contagious You are likely contagious for five to seven days after symptoms first appear, and it could be a lot longer. That’s especially true if your immune system is in any way compromised, in which case you could be contagious for weeks. It’s also worth noting that anything you touch, such as a doorknob, faucet, or someone else’s phone or desk, could remain infectious for up to 48 hours

Ideally, you should stay home for at least those five to seven days, or at least 24 hours after all your symptoms go away. With tools like a VPN and video chat, it should be possible for you to stay out of the office while still getting work done.

3. In fact, you should just consider yourself contagious all the time.

That’s because you can be contagious for a day or two before symptoms even appear. Unless you can see into the future, you can’t always know when you’re contagious. So you, and the other people in the office, should always follow best practices. Move away from people if you’re going to sneeze or cough and make sure to cover your moth or nose. Wash your hands often and avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Avoid sharing food with others or touching others’ food.

4. A mild cold can still be a big deal.

Your immune system may battle this particular virus differently than other people’s do. So a virus that’s just given you the sniffles might land someone else in bed for a week. There’s no way to know. 

You probably don’t want to stay home from work every time you have a mild cold. But if you do go to the office, be extra diligent with your anti-contagion precautions.

5. If you a have a stomach flu, stay home for at least 24 hours after it’s done.

That may sound excessive, but let me explain. Most adult cases of stomach flu are caused by something called a norovirus, and noroviruses are highly contagious. This is why, when one family member has it, the rest of the family usually gets it.

You’re contagious for at least 24 hours after the last instance of vomiting or diarrhea, and often longer. Ideally, you’d stay away from work for 48 hours. Practice contagion caution when you return. Incidentally, you can be contagious before you have stomach flu symptoms, another good reason to always be careful about contagion.

6. Don’t let a virus manipulate you.

Research has shown that viruses can influence or even control their hosts. For example, there’s a kind of flatworm whose lifecycle takes it through both ants and sheep. And this flatworm somehow forces the ant to climb to the top of a blade of grass and then clamp on to the grass with its jaw, making it highly likely that a grazing sheep will eat it.

Likewise, there’s evidence to suggest that a cold or flu virus will make humans more likely to want to interact with other humans. This is good for the virus, but not so good for those other humans. So next time you know you’re good and sick, but you really, really feel like you need to get to the office or to a social event, stop and ask yourself: Are you doing what’s best for the virus? Or what’s best for your co-workers and yourself?

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