News and information from the NIH and CDC
Most everyone looks forward to summer—time to get away, get outside and have some fun. So what could be more unfair than catching a cold when it’s warm? How can cold symptoms arise when it’s not cold and flu season? Is there any way to dodge the summertime sniffles?
Cold symptoms can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. Each can bring the sneezing, scratchy throat and runny nose that can be the first signs of a cold. The colds we catch in winter are usually triggered by the most common viral infections in humans, a group of germs called rhinoviruses. Rhinoviruses and a few other cold-causing viruses seem to survive best in cooler weather. Their numbers surge in September and begin to dwindle in May.
During summer months, the viral landscape begins to shift. “Generally speaking, summer and winter colds are caused by different viruses,” says Dr. Michael Pichichero, a pediatrician and infectious disease researcher at the Rochester General Hospital Research Institute in New York. “When you talk about summer colds, you’re probably talking about a non-polio enterovirus infection.”
Enteroviruses can infect the tissues in your nose and throat, eyes, digestive system and elsewhere. A few enteroviruses can cause polio, but vaccines have mostly eliminated these viruses from Western countries. Far more widespread are more than 60 types of non-polio enteroviruses. They’re the second most common type of virus—after rhinovirus—that infects humans. About half of people with enterovirus infections don’t get sick at all. But nationwide, enteroviruses cause an estimated 10 million to 15 million illnesses each year, usually between June and October.
Enteroviruses can cause a fever that comes on suddenly. Body temperatures may range from 101 to 104 °F. Enteroviruses can also cause mild respiratory symptoms, sore throat, headache, muscle aches and gastrointestinal issues like nausea or vomiting.
“All age groups can be affected, but like most viral infections, enterovirus infections predominate in childhood,” says Pichichero. Adults may be protected from enterovirus infections if they’ve developed antibodies from previous exposures. But adults can still get sick if they encounter a new type of enterovirus.
Less common enteroviruses can cause other symptoms. Some can lead to conjunctivitis, or pinkeye—a swelling of the outer layer of the eye and eyelid. Others can cause an illness with rash. In rare cases, enteroviruses can affect the heart or brain.
To prevent enterovirus infections, says Pichichero, “it’s all about blocking viral transmission.” The viruses travel in respiratory secretions, like saliva or mucus, or in the stool of an infected person. You can become infected by direct contact. Or you might pick up the virus by touching contaminated surfaces or objects, such as a telephone, doorknob or baby’s diaper. “Frequent hand washing and avoiding exposure to people who are sick with fever can help prevent the spread of infection,” says Pichichero.
The summer colds caused by enteroviruses generally clear up without treatment within a few days or even a week. But see a health care provider if you have concerning symptoms, like a high fever or a rash.
Sore throat and runny nose are usually the first signs of a cold, followed by coughing and sneezing. Most people recover in 7-10 days or so. You can help reduce your risk of getting a cold by washing your hands often and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
Common colds are the main reason that children miss school and adults miss work. Each year in the United States, there are millions of cases of the common cold. Adults have an average of 2-3 colds per year, and children have even more.
Most people get colds in the winter and spring, but it is possible to get a cold any time of the year. Symptoms usually include sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headaches and body aches. Most people recover within about 7-10 days. However, people with weakened immune systems, asthma, or respiratory conditions may develop serious illness, such as pneumonia.
How to Protect Yourself and Others
You can help reduce your risk of getting a cold:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water
Wash them for 20 seconds, and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Viruses that cause colds can live on your hands, and regular handwashing can help protect you from getting sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
Viruses that cause colds can enter your body this way and make you sick.
- Stay away from people who are sick
Sick people can spread viruses that cause the common cold through close contact with others.
Help reduce your risk of getting a cold by washing hands often with soap and water.
If you have a cold, you should follow these tips to prevent spreading it to other people:
- Stay at home while you are sick
- Avoid close contact with others, such as hugging, kissing, or shaking hands
- Move away from people before coughing or sneezing
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue then throw it away, or cough and sneeze into your upper shirt sleeve, completely covering your mouth and nose
- Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and objects such as toys and doorknobs
There is no vaccine to protect you against the common cold.
How to Feel Better
There is no cure for a cold. To feel better, you should get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines may help ease symptoms but will not make your cold go away any faster. Always read the label and use medications as directed. Talk to your doctor before giving your child nonprescription cold medicines, since some medicines contain ingredients that are not recommended for children. Learn more about symptom relief.
Antibiotics will not help you recover from a cold. They do not work against viruses, and they may make it harder for your body to fight future bacterial infections if you take them unnecessarily. Learn more about when antibiotics work.
If your child is younger than 3 months of age and has a fever, you should always call your doctor right away. Your doctor can determine if you or your child has a cold and can recommend therapy to help with symptoms.
Call your doctor if your child has symptoms that last more than 10 days.
Causes of the Common Cold
Many different viruses can cause the common cold, but rhinoviruses are the most common. Rhinoviruses can also trigger asthma attacks and have been linked to sinus and ear infections. Other viruses that can cause colds include respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, and human metapneumovirus.
Viruses that cause colds can spread from infected people to others through the air and close personal contact. You can also get infected through contact with stool (poop) or respiratory secretions from an infected person. This can happen when you shake hands with someone who has a cold, or touch a doorknob that has viruses on it, then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose.
The above information is provided for educational and informative purposes only. Contact your health care provider with any specific questions regarding the health of your child. Please visit CDC.gov and NIH.gov for more information.