Everything you need to know about summer colds
Regardless of when a person catches a cold, the cause is a virus. As the weather turns warm, the viruses that cause most colds tend to shift.
Enteroviruses cause many summer colds, triggering upper respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose and sore throat, as well as stomach problems.
Enteroviruses are more common in the summer months than rhinoviruses, which are more common in colder months.
Antibiotics cannot usually treat colds, but home remedies can help a person feel better faster. Read on to learn more about getting a cold in the summer and how to alleviate the symptoms.
Most summer colds cause symptoms similar to those of winter colds, including:
- a runny nose
- pressure in the sinuses or head
- a sore throat
- low energy
- muscle aches
Many winter colds do not cause fevers, especially in adults, but summer viruses due to enteroviruses may cause a sudden fever.
Although some people insist that summer colds are always worse or longer lived than winter colds, there is little clinical evidence to support this claim. Most summer colds, like winter colds, go away within a few days and do not require medical treatment.
Some enteroviruses cause other illnesses with different symptoms. These include:
- herpangina, which causes small blisters on the mouth and throat, as well as a sudden fever
- hand, foot, and mouth disease, which causes symptoms similar to herpangina, except that the blisters are also on the hands and feet and a person may also have flu-like symptoms
- conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, which causes swelling and redness in one or both eyes
Rarely, enteroviruses can cause serious and potentially life threatening illnesses, such as meningitis and myocarditis.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold and allergies, particularly when symptoms strike at the start of allergy season.
Some important distinctions include:
- Fever: Allergies to airborne substances, such as dust and pollen, do not cause a fever.
- Timing of illness: Allergies typically appear as soon as a person comes into contact with an allergen. For example, a person may feel ill as soon as pollen season begins.
- Length of illness: Colds, even bad ones, typically last fewer than 10 days, whereas allergies can last many weeks.
- Symptom pattern: People with allergies may notice that their symptoms get better indoors, or when they use air conditioning or air filters.
- Exhaustion: Colds commonly cause exhaustion and fatigue, whereas allergies rarely do.
- Muscle aches: Allergies can cause headaches and face pain, but they do not cause widespread muscle pain.
- Response to medication: Antihistamines help with many allergies but do not typically help with cold symptoms.
No medication can kill the viruses that cause most summer colds. However, a range of treatments can help with the symptoms. These treatments include:
- decongestants to help with coughing and congestion
- cough medicine and cough drops
- over-the-counter pain and fever relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen
- chest vapor rubs to help with congestion
- steamy showers to help relieve congestion
- using a humidifier while asleep to reduce air dryness and help with coughing
A person should always consult a doctor before giving medication to babies and young children. Also, a person should avoid mixing multiple drugs unless a doctor suggests doing so.
Some evidence suggests that herbal remedies may help with some symptoms. Honey, for example, may help with coughing, while zinc may help shorten the cold. However, never give honey to an infant under 1 year old.
That said, all herbal remedies present some risks, and there has not yet been enough research to conclusively support the effectiveness of these remedies. For this reason, it is vital to consult a doctor before trying an alternative remedy.
Occasionally, colds can cause secondary infections. For example, some children develop ear infections after a cold. Antibiotics can treat these secondary infections.
However, it is important to note that antibiotics do not treat colds. Using them for this purpose can make antibiotics less effective over time, which contributes to antibiotic resistance.
A person can get a summer cold when they come into contact with germs from an infected person’s body fluids, such as their saliva, mucus, or feces.
For example, if a sick person sneezes into their hand and then shakes another person’s hand, the virus can spread.
Likewise, if tiny particles of feces linger in swimming pools and other public places, this can also cause enterovirus to spread.
More than 200 different types of virus can cause colds, and the length of time they are contagious for varies. In general, a person is contagious when they have a fever and for at least a day after.
People are more likely to be contagious when their symptoms are severe. Most people are contagious for several days.
Risk factors for catching a summer cold include:
- spending lots of time around children, who tend not to wash their hands and who easily spread bodily fluids through kissing
- spending time in enclosed public places or in close contact with others
- not regularly washing the hands
- having a weak immune system because of stress, lack of sleep, or a chronic illness
- being very young or very old
To reduce the risk of catching or spreading a summer cold, try these strategies:
- Frequently wash the hands, especially before eating or touching the face. Wash the hands after being in public places or coming into close contact with people who might be sick — such as after flying or swimming.
- Stay home from school or work if the symptoms of a cold develop.
- Adopt and follow employment policies that encourage people to stay home when sick. Employers should consider offering paid sick leave and not penalizing staff for missing work due to illness.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue or the inner elbow rather than the hand, since hands are more likely to spread infection.
- Do not share utensils with other people.
- Do not kiss people who might be sick.
- Do not touch the face, mouth, or nose with unclean hands.
- Always wash the hands before preparing food.
- For people with weak immune systems due to a chronic illness or from taking certain medications, avoid public pools.
- Make sure that children wash their hands.
- Disinfect surfaces that may come into contact with the infection, especially if someone in the house has recently been sick.
Summer colds are not typically worse than winter colds, but they can feel more isolating — especially if everyone else is enjoying the pool, summer festivals, or other outdoor activities.
For most people, a summer cold is a minor inconvenience. However, colds can sometimes cause serious complications, especially in people with weak immune systems, newborns, and older people.
If the symptoms last for longer than a few days, if a newborn develops a cold, or if a person develops a very high fever, it is best to see a doctor.