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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : How does a cold virus spread from person to person?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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December 14, 2012
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A:

The common cold is most often spread by direct contact with the respiratory secretions of someone who is infected. Usually by hand-to-hand contact.

Here’s how it usually happens:

  • The person with the cold touches their mouth or nose (we do this all day long without thinking).
  • The cold viruses are now on their hands.
  • The person touches another person, such as shaking hands.
  • The other person rubs his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Viruses cross the thin “barrier” over the eyes or the lining inside the nose or mouth.
  • The viruses are in and so it goes.

It is also possible to become infected by touching a surface — such as a table top or doorknob — that someone with a cold recently touched. Cold viruses can survive on these types of surfaces for as long as 3 hours.

Again without being aware, you might touch your eyes, mouth or nose. So washing your hands frequently is extremely important to prevent the spread of the common cold.

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