Are Summer Colds Really Worse Than Winter Colds?

5 min read

May 31, 2024 -- Summer is all about vacations, travel, outdoor sports and activities, easy living, and having fun – that is, until a cold throws a wrench into best laid plans. Some people describe summer colds as “the worst ever,” while others roll with the punches, tissues at the ready.

Chaz French, a digital publishing specialist based in San Francisco, said “summer colds always seem to hit me much harder and take longer to get over.” 

Due to their unfortunate timing, summer colds can often overlap with other common respiratory illnesses. Constance Gill, an art consultant based in New York City, said that for her, “summer colds are often combined with allergies and further aggravated by air conditioning. Just the sheer indignity of being sick when the weather is nice is super annoying,” she said.

Are summer colds really different from winter colds? More importantly, do certain strategies work better than others for reducing how long cold symptoms linger? We spoke with several experts to try to unravel the reasons why colds feel so bad during the warmer months and spill the tea on what strategies, if any, can prevent them.

Virus Bonanza

Most people are familiar with symptoms of the common cold: stuffy nose, achiness, sore throat, tiredness, and fever. 

“The common cold is not caused by a single virus but rather, many different types of respiratory viruses,” said William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease expert and professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. “Some of them are very seasonal along with the flu, and others are not so seasonal and may persist through the summer.” 

Examples include rhinoviruses, which are responsible for most winter colds, and enteroviruses, which researchers have linked to summer colds. Schaffner also pointed to the family of coronaviruses – namely, pre-COVID-19 – that also continue to cause common colds throughout the summer.

This virus bonanza makes it challenging to determine which virus or viruses might be responsible for symptoms, but it may help explain how long symptoms last. Katharine DeGeorge, MD, a family practitioner at UVA Health, said the CDC found that by and large, enteroviruses, linked to summer colds, last a median of 20 days.  “For rhinoviruses – which cause winter colds – it tends to be 7 to 14 days,” she said. “That might be why people feel like summer colds are worse because they actually do last longer.”

Navigating the Symptom Overlap

It can be frustrating to try to figure out if your symptoms mean you have a summer cold, allergies, or COVID. 

“There is definitely overlap; you can have a summer cold at the same time that you’re experiencing allergy symptoms,” said DeGeorge. “Allergies almost never come with fever or body aches, but instead, nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and sore throat are typical,” she said. 

Those symptoms are also common in colds, she said, but might also include fever, headache, and body aches. 

And don’t forget, Schaffner said, “Allergies are also frequently associated with irritated eyes, redness, or itching.” 

“With COVID, there’s almost never sneezing, and loss of smell or taste are common,” said DeGeorge. 

Schaffner also explained that COVID and summer colds can start the same way, making them almost impossible to distinguish, at least at first. 

“The whole story of the common cold has become much more complicated since COVID entered the scene,” he said. But “I want to remind readers in high-risk groups — 65 and older, with underlying chronic illnesses, people who are immune compromised, or are pregnant – if you start getting symptoms, do not hesitate to contact your provider or run to the pharmacy for a test.”

Should You Zinc?

“Zinc is a vital part of the immune system; it can work to support a variety of enzymes and proteins in the body that determine how we respond to things like viruses,” said Emily Ho, PhD, distinguished professor of nutrition at Oregon State University in Corvallis. 

But in so far as prevention goes, “we have pretty good evidence that zinc doesn’t help prevent acute respiratory infections, so it probably makes no difference how bad your cold is (or when it occurs),” said L. Susan Wieland, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, who co-authored a recently published comprehensive review on zinc. Wieland and her colleagues examined the evidence on zinc and colds in 34 studies that enrolled in roughly 8,500 people. Prevention aside, findings suggested that taking zinc might shorten the average time that a cold lasted by about 2.4 days.

“Starting zinc lozenges within 24 hours of when a cold starts and taking them for a few days might help ease symptoms and shorten duration, but it’s certainly not a cure,” Ho said. 

Keep in mind, however, that “zinc does not work for allergies,” DeGeorge said.

Summer Cold Strategies

Common-cold researchers have long noted that not only do psychological factors like stress influence susceptibility to developing colds, but the occasional need to isolate oneself and perceived loneliness that comes with missing out on planned activities may also increase how severe cold symptoms feel to many people. 

“Summer is more fun than winter, and if you have a cold, you can’t do the fun,“ said Susan Murphy, a video producer from Ottawa, Canada.

Although you might miss out on whatever plans have been made, DeGeorge said that rest and over-the-counter painkillers have been shown to reduce symptom severity. 

“NSAIDs like ibuprofen can have an effect on cough receptors and actually help with coughing,” she said. “Honey has also been shown to be helpful and can also be eaten off of a spoon,” said DeGeorge. This might be preferable to mixing it into hot drinks, especially during the summer months.

For summer colds or winter colds, the same rules apply when it comes to expert advice to wash your hands frequently and avoid people with symptoms. Fortunately, summer and outdoor activities go hand-in-hand, which allows more flexibility in terms of having ample space to enjoy activities without concern for being in overcrowded indoor spaces that increase the chances for exposure to cold viruses.

Finally, mild exercise remains an important strategy for summer colds and might even make them more tolerable. “There are studies that suggest exercise might reduce the duration of the cold,” said Schaffner. 

“I always tell people to listen to their body,” added DeGeorge. “If you feel like moving your body and exercising, do it!”