When you think of summertime, warm weather is often the first thing that comes to mind (with vacation and relaxation following closely behind). In most years, getting sick is the last thing you’re thinking about in the summer months. When a cough or the sniffles strike, it could be allergies. Or, it could be a summer cold.
Can you catch a cold in the summer?
Yes, a summer cold is just a common cold that you experience during a different time of year. Even though it seems unfair to be ill when the kids are out of school and your beach vacation is booked, it’s possible. It just might be caused by a slightly different virus than the cold you catch in winter months.
“Different viruses peak at different times of the year depending on humidity and temperature,” says Leann Poston, MD, a pediatric medicine practitioner and contributor for Ikon Health. “Others have no peak and are present year-round.”
While there are many causes, two common viruses are behind most colds, according to the National Institutes of Health, and they are most active during different times of the year:
- Rhinoviruses: These survive best in cooler temperatures, and are most prevalent September through May.
- Enteroviruses: Non-polio enteroviruses are the second most common type after rhinoviruses. They are most active from June to October.
“There are [more than] 200 viruses that can cause a cold throughout the year,” says Julia Blank, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Summer colds are more often caused by enteroviruses, while winter colds are generally due to viruses that survive better in colder weather—such as rhinoviruses.”
In other words, if you catch a cold after Memorial Day, it’s likely from an enterovirus infection.
Both types cause respiratory symptoms like runny nose, sore throat, and congestion—and most often clear up without the help of antibiotics. However, enteroviruses can also (less commonly) cause symptoms like fever, gastrointestinal symptoms, and conjunctivitis.
These potential complications could contribute to the myth that summer colds are worse than winter colds. Although it may feel worse to be stuck in bed when the sun is shining and your family is barbecuing outside, there’s no evidence to suggest that summer colds are worse than winter ones. “I think they just feel worse because they are unexpected and people generally are more active in the summer and having a cold slows them down,” Dr. Poston says.
How do you catch a summer cold?
The viruses that cause cold symptoms are contagious. They are transmitted through tiny droplets in the air that are expelled from a person’s nose and mouth when they sneeze, cough, or talk.
It’s easier to catch them when you’re spending a lot of time indoors with infected people, like school or the office. “Summer colds are common, though less so than in winter because cold viruses spread more easily when people are packed into enclosed spaces (we’re more likely to be indoors when it’s cold out), also cold viruses spread more easily in cold dry air,” Dr. Blank explains.
The best way to avoid getting sick (or passing the virus to others) is by covering coughs and sneezes and practicing good hand hygiene. That means handwashing with soap and water for at least 30 seconds after touching shared surfaces, like door knobs or elevator buttons. When you can’t get to a sink, use hand sanitizer. And, always avoid touching your nose, mouth, and face as much as possible.
Summer cold vs. allergies
Summer colds and seasonal allergies have similar symptoms:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- General malaise or fatigue
Since they occur during the same time of year, it can be easy to mistake them for one another. Or, in 2020, to worry that they are the first signs of a novel coronavirus infection (COVID-19).
“The common cold may have similar symptoms to COVID-19 but does not often cause chest congestion and shortness of breath,” says Alan Goldsobel, MD, a physician at Allergy & Asthma Associates in Northern California, adjunct professor at Stanford University Medical Center, clinical professor at UCSF. “COVID-19 symptoms may include the development of shortness of breath typically five to 10 days after the development of the initial fever. This can be accompanied by fatigue, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, and other symptoms.”
RELATED: Allergy vs. coronavirus symptoms
There are a few ways to tell them apart:
- Fever: “If you have a fever, it is most likely an infection,” Dr. Goldsobel says. “No fever with allergies.”
- Body aches: While a cold and allergies can tire you out, generalized body and muscle aches are more commonly symptoms of a cold, COVID-19, or the flu—not seasonal allergies.
- Appearance of mucus: “Secretions tend to be thin and clear with allergies, but may get thicker and discolored (yellow/green) with a cold,” Dr. Blank says.
- Timing of symptoms: If you had summer allergies last year, or if your nose starts running after you’re done mowing the lawn, it’s more likely that symptoms are triggered by a sensitivity to airborne allergens than an upper respiratory infection. “Allergy symptoms may fluctuate depending on environment (e.g., being outdoors vs. indoors), cold symptoms don’t typically vary depending on environment—the symptoms get worse over a period of days and then slowly improve,” explains Dr. Blank.
- Length of symptoms: Cold symptoms typically go away within 10 days. COVID-19 symptoms often last two weeks. If yours last an entire season, you can probably rule out viral infection.
- Response to medication: “Allergies typically respond well to antihistamines,” explains Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at MemorialCare Medical Group in Laguna Woods, California. “Older traditional antihistamines like Benadryl can be used. They work well but cause sleepiness. New non-sedating antihistamines work well for daytime. These include Allegra, Zyrtec, and Claritin—generic versions are available.” They don’t usually help symptoms of a cold.
If you’re concerned, or if your symptoms start to worsen, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider. Sometimes colds can progress to more serious illnesses, like bronchitis or pneumonia. Or, you can mistake a bacterial infection, like strep throat, for a common cold. A call or visit to a healthcare provider will help determine if you need treatment.
How to get rid of a summer cold
Since colds are caused by viral infections, antibiotics won’t help to cure them. That being said, there are some effective over-the-counter medications and home remedies that can help to ease your discomfort.
These treatments won’t cure your infection, but they can help make the symptoms a little less painful. Depending on what you’re experiencing, the following can help.
- Fever reducer: OTC pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil/Motrin (ibuprofen) are effective at reducing fevers, and providing temporary relief of minor aches and pains—like headache or body aches.
- Decongestant: If you’re feeling stuffy, a decongestant like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) can help clear out nasal passages and sinuses.
- Expectorant: For coughs that travel down into your chest, a medication like Mucinex (guaifenesin) can soften mucus so it’s easier to expel.
- Cough suppressant: To avoid staying awake all night hacking and coughing, try a nighttime cough suppressant, such as Robitussin.
- Nasal spray: Some healthcare providers recommend using a nasal spray, such as Flonase (fluticasone), at the first sign of cold symptoms, especially if you’re prone to sinus infections.
There are also combination products to treat cold symptoms that may contain several of these medications in one pill or liquid.
If you prefer to use homeopathic remedies, or your symptoms aren’t severe, the following lifestyle changes may alleviate the most common signs of a summer cold.
- Rest: Sleep is the best cure for most viral infections. Make sure to take it easy when you feel tired, and log eight hours of shuteye nightly.
- Hydration: Drink plenty of water, especially in the warmer months, to help your body recover from infection. “Also avoid alcohol, caffeine, and excessive heat, which can dehydrate,” Dr. Blank suggests.
- Proper nutrition: Eat a diet packed with nutrients, like vitamin C, to help your immune system bounce back. “Eating chicken soup may also have an anti-inflammatory effect and help to clear nasal passages more quickly,” says Dr. Blank.
- Humidifiers: Moist, steamy air can help loosen congestion and make you feel more comfortable. If you don’t have a humidifier, try taking a hot shower when you wake up or before bed.
- Saline nasal rinse: Also known as a neti pot, a salt water rinse can clear excess mucus from your nose and sinuses so you can breathe a little easier.
- Supplements: Although there isn’t hard evidence that they help, some people swear by vitamin C, zinc, licorice root, oil of oregano, and echinacea to recover from a cold. “Some studies also show that elderberry can help reduce the severity and duration of a cold,” says Dr. Blank. Just make sure to discuss any herbal remedies with your healthcare provider before adding them to your daily regimen.
- Throat lozenges: Air conditioning can be a real blessing in summer, but it can also create a cold, dry environment that viruses love. Your throat can suffer from the dry environment too. Keep the air conditioner at a consistently moderate temperature and use throat lozenges to soothe a sore throat.
“Rest, drink lots of liquids, exercise as you are able and spend 15-20 minutes out in the sun two to three times weekly to maintain your Vitamin D level,” recommends Dr. Poston. In other words, if you spend time taking good care of your mind and body, it will help you to stay healthy all summer long.