Why Summer Colds Can Feel So Much Worse Than Winter Ones

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
Not that there's ever a convenient time to get sick, but when you notice a cold coming on in the thick of summer, it's arguably the worst. Suddenly, your beach vacation is spent sniffling and coughing inside, wondering if you have a fever or the air-conditioning is just getting to you.
It's not just in your head: summer colds are different than the ones you get in the wintertime, and they tend to come with a unique set symptoms. Both are irritating in their own special ways, but here's how to survive the specific misery of a summer cold:
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What causes a summer cold?

In the winter, most colds are caused by rhinovirus, which is a group of germs that thrive in cool environments, according to the National Institutes of Health. But in the summer, when the weather is warmer, colds tend to be caused by a different type of germ, called "non-polio enterovirus infection." (Yes, some enteroviruses are responsible for polio — but that's not a concern for people who have been vaccinated.) Between the months of June and October, your cold symptoms might be traced back to enterovirus.

What are the symptoms of a summer cold?

In adults, non-polio enterovirus usually manifests like a mild cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control. You might have a runny nose, sneezing, and a cough, as well as a fever and bodily aches. Some people may also develop a skin rash or mouth blisters as well. It's not unheard of to also end up with gastrointestinal symptoms with enterovirus, such as nausea or vomiting. Generally speaking, kids and infants get summer colds worse than grown-ups because their immune systems aren't fully developed.

How do I know if it's a summer cold or allergies?

Summer colds and seasonal allergies can hit at the same time, making it difficult to differentiate between the symptoms. Although both can cause a runny or stuffy nose, and an itchy or sore throat, allergies usually also include watery eyes. A fever is usually a giveaway that you have a cold, not just allergies. And in general, allergy symptoms tend to linger longer than a cold.
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Are summer colds really worse than winter ones?

It's tough to say exactly. Experts believe that the combination of cold symptoms and seasonal allergies may make your summer cold feel much worse than one that hits in the winter. Obviously there's also a psychological factor: it might feel more unfair that you have a cold in the summer, when you're supposed to be out having fun. A 2017 study suggests that summer colds are more isolating than winter ones, which is why they feel worse.

How long does a summer cold last?

If it is indeed a cold, it should go away in a few days or a week, according to NIH. But if you have a high fever, aches, or just generally feel like you got hit by a truck, that could be a sign that you have the flu. In which case, you'd want to see a doctor who can prescribe an antiviral medication to treat the influenza virus.

How do you deal with a summer cold?

There's no cure for the common cold whether it strikes in the winter or the summer. The best thing you can do is treat your symptoms, according to the CDC. There are various OTC nasal decongestant medications that can help un-stuff your nose, and some home remedies that may soothe your sore throat. Staying hydrated is key when you're sick in the summer, because you might already be losing fluids from the warmer temps. Otherwise, your best bet is to chill out and know that this too shall pass.
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