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Incubation Period of Diseases

Can’t you just stay home if you are sick with a vaccine-preventable disease and avoid getting others sick?

Once upon a time, with no treatment or vaccine, families would just be quarantined when they had chicken pox.
Once upon a time, with no treatment or vaccine, families would just be quarantined when they were sick. Photo by Howard Liberman.

That’s a common argument used by those who skip or delay one or more vaccines. They figure they aren’t putting anyone else at risk, because they will just keep their sick kid home.

Incubation Period of Diseases

The problem with that idea is that the incubation period for some diseases is very long.

The incubation period is defined as:

The time from contact with infectious agents (bacteria or viruses) to onset of disease.

And even more importantly, with some diseases, like measles and chicken pox, you can be contagious for several days even before you begin to show classic symptoms and know you are sick.

So you might take your intentionally unvaccinated child to a chicken pox party, planning to keep him away from others once he gets sick, not realizing that:

  • the incubation period for chicken pox is 10 to 21 days, meaning that it can take 10 to 21 days for you to get sick after being exposed to someone with chicken pox or shingles
  • you can be contagious to others one to two days before you even develop the classic chicken pox rash

While that might not be too big a deal if everyone around you is completely vaccinated, if any contacts are too young to have had two doses of the chicken pox vaccine, can’t be vaccinated because they have an immune system problem, or had their immunity wear off because of an immune system problem, then they could get sick.

What about COVID-19?

“The incubation period for COVID-19 is thought to extend to 14 days, with a median time of 4-5 days from exposure to symptoms onset. One study reported that 97.5% of persons with COVID-19 who develop symptoms will do so within 11.5 days of SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

Interim Clinical Guidance for Management of Patients with Confirmed Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)

The incubation period for COVID-19 is 14 days.

That’s why the incubation period often turns into the quarantine period for most vaccine-preventable diseases.

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