If you’ve spent the last couple days cooped up inside your house fighting the flu and dozing off to Netflix, you may be wondering when you can return to civilization. You’re eager to do something constructive, yet you wouldn’t want to put your family or co-workers at risk for infection. So just how long are you contagious?
Most people go back to work when their worst symptoms start to retreat, but that’s probably a little too early. The CDC says you can be contagious the day before you start feeling sick and up to seven days after. Children, elderly and those with weak immune systems can be contagious even longer.
Those unpleasant symptoms are actually the result of your immune system fighting the flu virus. For starters, your body increasing in temperature, resulting in a fever because the flu virus doesn’t spread as well at higher temperatures.
And that mucus has a purpose, too. It catches the virus before it can infect other cells.
Coughing is a symptom, but it’s a battle weapon for the virus’ side. As your airways get irritated and you cough and sneeze, the virus has a better chance for spreading to another person. The tiny droplets that are released in these functions can fly up to 20 feet at speeds of 25-50 miles per hour — and they can stay suspended for hours.
And viruses can linger on surfaces that an infected person has touched as well. This is why hand washing during flu season — and any season — is so important.
This means, if you’re planning on going back to work, staying in your cube or keeping to yourself all day isn’t a very good plan. The CDC recommends you stay at home for at least 24 hours after your your fever has gone — without the use of any fever-reducing medicine.
The good news is that the terrible 2017-18 flu season may be starting to wind down.
“It’s been a tough season so far this year, but this week we’re actually seeing the influenza-like illness activity beginning to drop,” Dr. Danial Jernigan, one of the CDC’s top flu experts, told NBC News. “It looks like the peak of the season may actually be behind us at this point.”