June 5, 2019


Health Check: how long should you stay away when you have a cold or the flu? Symptoms of the flu generally develop more quickly and are more severe than the common cold.


Nadia Charania, Auckland University of Technology

Most adults get around two to three colds a year, and children get even more. In terms of the flu, there are around 3-5 million severe cases of influenza worldwide each year and 290,000 to 650,000 deaths.

The symptoms of a cold and the flu are similar, so it’s hard to tell the difference. But the flu is usually more severe and develops more quickly than a cold.

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Colds and flus can be easily passed from person to person through the air, when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and touch, when a person touches an infected surface or object like doorknobs and light switches.

So what’s the difference between colds and flus, and how long should you stay away?


Cold symptoms include a sore throat, cough, runny or stuffy nose, tiredness and headache.

Most people become contagious with cold symptoms one to two days after exposure to a cold virus. These symptoms usually peak two to four days later. The common cold usually lasts about ten days.

Read more:
I’ve always wondered: why is the flu virus so much worse than the common cold virus?

There is nothing you can take to shorten the duration of a cold, and most people will get better without needing to see a doctor. But some over-the-counter medications can help alleviate the symptoms. These include anti-inflammatories (to reduce inflammation or swelling), analgesics (to reduce pain), antipyretics (to reduce fever) and decongestants (to relieve nasal congestion).

But be careful you follow the instructions and recommended dosage for these medications. A recent study of US adults who used paracetamol, the active ingredient in many cold and flu medicines, found 6.3% of users exceeded the maximum recommended daily dose. This mostly occurred during the cold and flu season.

For your own and others’ health, the best place for you to be when you’re sick is at home.

Natural products such as vitamin C and echinacea are sometimes recommended to prevent and treat a cold, but there is limited evidence to support their effectiveness.

The flu

Common symptoms of the flu include fever (a temperature of 38°C or higher), cough, chills, sore throat, headache, runny or stuffy nose, tiredness and muscle aches.

An infected person can spread the flu for five to seven days after becoming infected. The infectious period can begin 24 hours before the onset of symptoms. This means you can spread the flu without even knowing you’re sick.

Influenza viruses can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages. Most people will fully recover within one to two weeks and won’t require any medical attention. Similar to a cold, people can take some over-the-counter medications and other remedies to help alleviate symptoms.

Read more:
Explainer: what’s new about the 2018 flu vaccines, and who should get one?

But some people can become acutely unwell with the flu. They may require antiviral medication and, in severe cases, hospitalisation. Those at high risk include pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with certain medical conditions such as HIV/AIDS, asthma, diabetes and heart and lung diseases.

The flu virus strains that circulate usually change every year, so the best way to prevent getting the flu is to get the annual flu vaccine. The vaccine is moderately effective and recommended for adults and children over the age of six months. Some common side effects may occur, such as temporary soreness, redness and swelling at the injection site, fever, headache, muscle aches and nausea.

Wash with soap for at least 20 seconds to kill the germs.
Shutterstock/Alexander Raths

Avoid passing it on

If you feel unwell, stay home from work or school and rest (and get plenty of fluids) until you feel better. If you’ve had a fever, stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever has broken.

When you go back to work or school, you may still be infectious, so avoid passing the virus on by:

  • regularly washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and drying them properly – if soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser
  • practising good cough and sneeze etiquette: cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your upper shirtsleeve when you cough or sneeze, and throw away used tissues immediately
  • not touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • frequently cleaning the surfaces and objects you’ve touched.The Conversation

Nadia Charania, Senior Lecturer, Public Health, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • Sadly, not all of us can take this many days off work or let the kids have this many days off school. Which is probably why these things spread so quickly


  • I always stay stay away until I am well again. Not to infect anyone else.


  • A couple of days normally does the trick.


  • Great information thanks for sharing this


  • Currently battling a cold and praying I don’t pass it on to the kids.
    Was good to read the contagious periods for both cold and flu


  • I’m so trying not to get a cold but it’s hard when people cough and splutter everywhere. Clearly, the etiquette message is not getting through. I do believe REST and SLEEP is absolutely what helps you recover. And whilst we all fight it, rest and sleep will get you better, quicker.


  • Personally I’d like to stay home if I have something like this and I am lucky that my GP also think the same way and does home visits. Being in a doctors surgery spreading germs doesn’t do much for the whole community. When my children were little I’d phone my doctor and advise I think it’s [measles, chickenpox, etc] and my GP would visit my home and we never infected the world at large. Pity this doesn’t happen as often as it should these days.


  • Unfortunately I had to keep working and it worried me because I was around the elderly most of the day. I ended up wearing a mask and wearing gloves the whole time. The mask had to be changed every half hour and the gloves were changed whenever I was going into a different room. I’m just glad I never passed it on to anyone else


  • Good point we all should take to heart.


  • Great article. A lot of this is common knowledge and also common sense – but it is great to be reminded!


  • I work in retail and it’s so surprising to me how many people come in when they are unwell, coughing and sneezing all over the place! Then before you know it half the staff are sick. Stay home and rest!


  • People really need to take this on board as its all ready a bad season


  • Some painkillers also reduce temperature so you don’t need to take 2 medications.
    The type of decongestant depends whether it is in your head or chest.


  • Gosh it’s the worst thing when you’re unwell


  • My GP told me a cold can last for 4 weeks, though the ones recently seem to be persisting longer. I wish 10 days was all.


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