Cold and flu season can wreak havoc on schools, businesses and other places where people tend to gather together. As the viruses responsible are passed around from one person to the next, they can sometimes mutate into entirely new strains. This means that it’s possible to continue swapping similar illnesses back and forth between a small population. If you’re sick, it’s a good idea to avoid contact with others until you’ve gotten better. Unfortunately, that may not always be possible, so you may want to learn ways you can reduce the spread of infectious diseases to those around you.

How Long Viruses Remain Infectious

Cold and flu symptoms are generally caused by viral, rather than bacterial, infections. Viruses are unique pathogens that hijack a host’s DNA in order to replicate. This means that they’re harder to kill than bacteria, which reproduce with their own DNA, and they can evolve very quickly. This swift evolution has made the viruses responsible for cold and flu symptoms to be some of the most contagious known pathogens.

In general, you can begin spreading a disease as soon as you contract it, even if you have not yet begun to exhibit any symptoms. In most cases, this means that you will begin spreading the disease 24 to 48 hours before any symptoms arise. Worse, the virus will continue to be spreadable until all symptoms have stopped.

When you get sick, your immune system responds by attacking the pathogen. This results in the common symptoms of fever, coughing, sneezing and mucus production. Because viruses have evolved to survive this onslaught, they have adapted ways to benefit from it. Most viruses are spread through the expulsion of bodily fluid while coughing or sneezing. Viruses also dwell in saliva left behind on shared food or beverages, and it can spread from person to person through physical contact. Cold and flu viruses are hardier than other types of disease, and they can live for a fairly long amount of time outside their hosts.

When Can You Go Back to Work?

Most people do not want to work while they’re sick, and returning to work while you have an active virus is a surefire way to get your coworkers sick as well. Ideally, you would want to wait until all symptoms have passed before leaving home. Unfortunately, not all employers are willing to provide unlimited amounts of time off. This means that most people will go back to work or school while still actively carrying an infectious virus.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to keep your chance of spreading an infection low:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap or hand sanitizer
  • Always cough or sneeze into a tissue rather than the open air or your bare hands
  • Don’t share food or beverages with anyone else
  • Avoid touching surfaces that others will come into contact with when possible
  • Try to stay a substantial distance from others to avoid exhaling the virus into their airspace
  • Wear a face mask if necessary to prevent the release of the virus into the air
  • Treat the symptoms of the virus to reduce the coughing and sneezing you do

Following these tips will help reduce the risk of spreading a disease you are infected with. Additionally, these tips are equally helpful to healthy people looking to avoid infection while at work or other public places. Avoiding physical contact and staying clear of infected airspace will do wonders to keep you from getting sick. Here are a few more tips for avoiding the spread of disease:

  • Stay up-to-date on your flu vaccine
  • Strive to keep a healthy immune system by eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep and taking a multivitamin
  • Don’t compromise your immune system through the use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco or other substances
  • Whenever possible, avoid situations where close contact is impossible to avoid, like subways or concerts

Be aware that the average viral infection will usually clear up within a few days to a week. If an illness stretches on past a week, you may be dealing with a secondary infection or bacterial infection. If that’s the case, be sure to check with a doctor as you may need antibiotics or other drugs to control the disease. Also know that allergies can often mimic the symptoms of the cold or flu, but allergies are not infectious. They can, however, make you more vulnerable to infection due to a weakened immune system, so following the guidelines above can still help you stay healthy during flu season.