Why it doesn't matter if you are contagious
With very rare exceptions, it does not matter at all if you or your child is contagious with an illness.
This is because we are all very heavily exposed to the viruses that cause nearly all the illnesses that circulate in a community, namely colds, flus, and stomach flus.
This is not the message we are usually taught by schools and by our parents.
We have all been raised to think that it is only common courtesy to stay away from friends when ill for fear of "giving them" our cold or flu or stomach flu. Everyone has complained at some time or another about the child who returns to school or co-worker who returns to the office while sick, and upset that they might gives us or our child their illness.
So how can it makes sense to say it does not matter if you are contagious?
The reason lies in the superabundance of viruses in the air and their extraordinary ability to jump from person to person.
Let's start with the numbers:
Let's start with the numbers:
- Every single human being gets viral infections, and loads of them.
- The average is 8 every year from birth through the elderly years, and every year in between.
- With colds, people fill the air with their virus with every breath for about 3 weeks, that means every person is pumping virus into the air about 24 weeks every year.
- With some stomach flus, the viruses can be spread by a person for a whole year after the illness.
- For mono the virus can be spread easily for a year after the illness.
- Given that just for colds the average person is pumping virus into the year nearly half of every year, it is hard to imagine just how much virus fills the air of a major city.
- Put it all together, and with every breath, we breathe in about 1 billion live viruses, every breath!
How well do Viruses Get Around?
Now, how about how well viruses move around?
Viruses turn out to be little packets of genetic material, either DNA or RNA. They are wrapped in proteins that hold the key to entry in a cell. Once in a cell, the viral DNA/RNA activates the cell to make more virus.
That's it, that's what viruses do.
Viruses have been doing this for about 3 billion years. Humans have only existed for about 100,000 years. So viruses have been jumping from cell to cell 10,000 times longer than humanity has even existed.
The point is, they are very, very good at getting around and spreading.
We are all soaking in virus- contagion is essentially irrelevant
So if you or your child has a viral illness, it turns out to not matter at all if they are contagious, because everyone, including their family and friends, is so heavily exposed to viruses with every breath, that they will be heavily exposed to virus whether you or your child are with them or not.
When a well person wonders if someone with a cold or flu might make them ill is very much like a group of people playing in the ocean wondering if a new person, who happens to be wet, can play with them for fear the new person can make them wet.
Exceptions to the Rule
What rare situations demand isolation for contagious persons?
The main such situation is if someone has a weakened immune system and is actually isolated from other people. For example, someone critically ill in a hospital, or some people undergoing intense chemotherapy, or a recent organ transplant recipient. Most of people in this situation are avoiding contact with nearly everyone, and are fairly isolated, so a visit from someone who is contagious could make a difference.
- Viruses surround us, we breath in a billion with every breath
- People are contagious after a viral illness for weeks or months
- So, with the rare exception of a person who is critically ill, it makes little sense to remain fully isolated if you are contagious for a virus.
- Schools and families need to reconsider their traditional approach to limiting the spread of viruses, such policies have a nearly 100% failure rate and so should no longer be used.
- If you have a viral cold or flu, stay home if you feel sick, but do not remain isolated just to avoid the spread, the virus has already spread.
Dr. Arthur Lavin
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