When we think of colds, we usually picture ourselves snuggled in a warm bed, discarding piles of tissues while it snows outside. However, many of us forget that summer colds are also something to be on the lookout for. Besides pesky mosquitoes and hair-crushing humidity, the only thing that could ruin the last sunny days of the season is being stuck indoors with a runny nose. But is there a difference between a summer cold and a winter cold? Surprisingly, the answer is yes — these are in fact two very distinct colds.
What is the difference between summer colds and winter colds?
Though all colds might seem similar at first glance, they can actually vary based on the time of year when you start exhibiting symptoms. According to the National Institutes of Health, there’s no one cause for the common cold, with more than 200 viruses to blame for the irritating illness. The most frequent viral infections are triggered by a group of germs called rhinoviruses. These little annoyances survive best when temperatures dip, which is why you’re more likely to hear an orchestra of sneezing, coughing, and wheezing all the way from September until early May.
However, the arrival of sun-soaked weather doesn’t mean the coast is clear: Just when we’ve said goodbye to rhinovirus, enterovirus enters the picture. And what is enterovirus? This is another very common group of germs whose peak activity time is between June and October. Up to 15 million people get infected by enteroviruses each year, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that most of these cases are mild illnesses like the common cold.
What are the symptoms of enterovirus?
Summer cold symptoms are very similar to what you might experience in the winter, with just a few slight variations. A summer cold sore throat is one of the earliest signs that you’re about to get a nasty dose of enterovirus, and the CDC states that you should expect a fever, runny nose, sneezing, and coughing soon afterward.
But enterovirus symptoms don’t just stop at a summer cold fever. Unlike winter cold symptoms, this illness can also be accompanied by muscle aches, pink eye, and rashes, according to the University of Florida. Some strains of enterovirus have also been known to lodge themselves in the stomach, leading to nausea or vomiting.
“Because enterovirus can lead to very serious complications, and cause stomach and gut problems, summer colds can be worse than winter colds for some people,” John Oxford, emeritus professor of virology at Queen Mary, University of London, told Daily Mail. "However, in general, symptoms are similar and tend to last the same length of time whatever time of year you catch a cold.”
Are there home remedies for a summertime cold?
As soon as you start feeling under the weather, we’re sure your first thoughts will be how to get rid of a cold. Before you make a dash for your bathroom’s medicine cabinet, though, you should take note that treating a summer cold will technically not be the same as treating a winter cold (due to both illnesses being caused by different types of germs).
Dr. Aaron Glatt, MD, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said in an interview with U.S. News & World Report that, contrary to widely held beliefs, vitamin C probably won’t help people with colds get rid of those sniffles. He also mentioned that zinc, which has recently been marketed as an efficient cold remedy, won’t do much good as a summer cold treatment — lozenges and sprays infused with the vital element have been shown to help fight off rhinoviruses, but not the culprits of summer colds, enteroviruses.
Still, there are a few gentle home remedies that anyone struggling with a summer cold can try out to help soften some of the harsher symptoms. These include:
- Gargling salt water to relieve a sore throat.
- Mixing grated ginger with a tablespoon of honey and some lemon juice in hot water for a boost of nutrients.
- Eating spicy food to clear nasal congestions.
- Taking lots of rest and staying hydrated.
Most importantly, experts advise anyone wondering how long a summer cold lasts to stay home for a few days and avoid contact with other people. The enterovirus is spread through the mist of saliva and mucus that’s sprayed out during coughing and sneezing fits, so it’s of utmost importance to stay away from crowds in order to prevent any mass contagions (and of course, to always wash your hands after touching surfaces whether or not you’re sick).
"If you're sick, you really shouldn't be around people," Dr. Glatt said. "In the summer, you don't want to miss out on the fun. But if everybody's getting together to go out for dinner and you think, 'Oh, I'll go out, it won't be so bad,' you are probably infecting everybody at the table and everything around you."
Could your symptoms be from a cold or allergy?
Of course, there’s always a chance that your sneezing and coughing could be caused by a summer cold or allergies, since congestion is usually a sign of both troublesome ailments. However, there are some easy ways to figure out what’s causing your summertime suffering.
"A viral infection is going to give you a fever, which you're not going to get with allergies," Andrew Murphy, MD, an allergist who practices in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, told U.S. News & World Report. "The other distinguishing factor is that you feel bad with a cold. Your muscles ache, you feel lousy."
Another way to tell them apart? Look at your tissue after blowing into it. “Allergies tend to give you more clear drainage from your nose; colds tend to give you more yellow or greenish type of a drainage,” Glatt added.
Colds also last only a couple of days, while strong allergy reactions tend to linger for weeks at a time. As always, check with your physician if any symptoms take too much of a toll on you, or if they seem to be sticking around longer than usual. There are only a few days left in the summer, so let’s make sure we transition into fall as healthy as we can be — after all, we need to save all our energy for when flu season eventually kicks in.