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Guest post: "Am I contagious?"

"Am I contagious?" Doctors hear this question all the time. Patients want to know if they can go back to work or school. Parents wonder if going to a birthday party will mean inflicting pink eye on 30 kids. Airlines are concerned their flight attendants could be handing out gastroenteritis with the ginger ale.

When people keep their buggy selves quarantined, other people benefit. The problem is, it's often hard to keep track of how long different viruses or bacteria can be transmitted to others. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the likely reason that wintertime brings on more coughs and colds is that we are spending more time indoors at work and school - putting ourselves within reach of viruses hanging out on other people.

Armed with a little knowledge, you can minimize the transmission of your germs or your kids' to other people. Here's a list of common contagious diseases:

  • Conjunctivitis (pinkeye) is a notorious kid-hopper, and long-enduring too. Plan on about 10 days until the eyes are no longer red - your signal that the virus is done.
  • Colds are common for a reason: cold viruses are hardy enough to keep infecting 5 days after you get sick (10 days for children). Remember, too, that cold viruses hang out on inanimate objects (doorknobs, computer mice) for several hours, so you may want to chase your sick child's path around the home with some disinfectant.
  • The dreaded strep throat is luckily a complete wimp against the most simple of antibiotics, but you should quarantine for 24 hours after the first dose if your doctor says it's definitely strep.
  • I hope you've already been vaccinated against whooping cough (especially since the vaccine wears off in adulthood and needs a booster), but for those unlucky souls who get it, assume 2-3 weeks of contagiousness. And, considering how scary this cough sounds, you might want to hide in your house anyway.
  • Influenza (real flu, with fevers and serious muscle pain) is a significant cause of mortality in the elderly and young. Do us all a favor, and stay at home until there has been no fever for 24 hours.
  • Chickenpox shows you that it's done infecting. If the spots are crusted over, you're good to go. This is true for shingles also. Note that shingles can cause chickenpox in people who haven't had it before. So avoid schools and babies if you're an adult with shingles. If you are going back to work before the crusting happens, make sure that everyone in your office has already had chickenpox first.

While I hope you find this information useful in making sure you don't infect unsuspecting others (and perhaps knowing how long to avoid that coughing woman in sales), it's not meant to replace the evaluation and determination of your doctor, who will address your specific medical needs and can make a diagnosis and give you the appropriate care.

Monya De, '00, MD, MPH, manages social media for MD Delivered, Inc. of Los Angeles and Orange County. She received her BA from Stanford in human biology.

Previously: Guest post: Healthy traveling is happy traveling
Photo by eyesogreen

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