It’s a balmy 80-degree Saturday in summer, and your family is excited to get an early start for a day at the lake. You wake up as the sun is rising only to discover you’ve developed a scratchy throat and stuffy nose. Is it a cold, you wonder? Allergies? Most importantly, how can you speed recovery so you don’t miss out on the best months of the year?
Dr. Long Nguyen, Family Medicine Physician at ThedaCare Physicians-Wautoma, answers these questions and more to help you get back to better, faster.
Like winter colds, most summer colds are caused by viruses, though some can be bacterial in nature. You’re more likely to catch an enterovirus during the warmer months of the year, rather than a rhinovirus which survives better in colder weather.
Enteroviruses cause up to 15 million illnesses in the U.S. every year, most of which occur between June and October, according to the National Institutes of Health. These viruses enter your body through your nose, throat, eyes, digestive system and more. They cause many of the same symptoms as winter rhinoviruses, but they can cause other, more severe symptoms, too.
Similar to winter colds which commonly spread because people are indoors and in closer contact with each other, summer colds can be a common theme at large, social gatherings where you may be interacting with more people and exposed to more viruses and bacteria.
“Anything you come in contact with can potentially spread a cold, including, but not limited to, aerosolized particles or something you physically touch,” said Dr. Nguyen.
What are common summer cold symptoms?
The most common symptoms of a summer cold are:
- Runny nose
- Sinus pressure
- Sore throat
- Low energy
- Muscle aches
Additional symptoms of summer colds are more unique to getting sick during the warmer months. This is due to your body responding to an enterovirus, rather than a rhinovirus, and may result in:
- Sudden fever
- Small blisters on the mouth and throat
- Hand, foot and mouth disease (blisters on mouth, throat, hands and feet accompanied by flu-like symptoms)
- Meningitis and myocarditis, in very rare cases
If you experience milder symptoms of a summer cold and also occasionally suffer from allergies, it may be hard to tell if your immune system is fighting off a virus, or reacting to pollen or other foreign substances.
In order to tell the difference between a summer cold and allergies – and subsequently treat your condition more effectively – ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have a fever?
Allergies to dust, pollen and other airborne particles do not cause fevers. If you have a fever, you likely have a summer cold.
- When did I start feeling sick?
Symptoms of seasonal allergies start as soon as you come into contact with the allergen. Symptoms of a cold, meanwhile, take about one to three days to appear after exposure to the virus or bacteria.
- How long have I been feeling sick?
Allergies can last for weeks, while a cold will usually clear up within 10 days. A cold will be worse at the beginning and then get better, but your allergies will feel about the same every day. Also take note if your symptoms get better when you’re inside using the air conditioning. If this is the case, you’re experiencing allergies.
- Do I feel tired and weak?
Colds cause fatigue, exhaustion and muscle aches. Allergies, while miserable, rarely make you tired or achy.
- What type of medicine is making me feel better?
Antihistamines prevent your body from reacting to allergens. They’re great for allergies, but they don’t help with cold symptoms. If you feel better after taking an antihistamine, you are experiencing allergies.
If you determine that you have a summer cold vs. allergies, the good news is that you’ll get better soon! But for the next week or so, you may feel pretty awful.
There is no hard and fast rule about what makes you feel sicker in the summer compared to the winter. Each cold presents different symptoms, varies in severity and is caused by a different virus or bacteria.
“A cold can run through the family and everyone gets sick, but each person will respond differently,” said Dr. Nguyen. “The difference in response is not in a person’s head, but instead dependent on their body and immune system.”
Summer colds usually last three to 10 days, just like winter colds. Most will go away on their own, and symptoms can be minimized with the right treatment.
However, if there is a chance that you could have COVID-19 or your symptoms are getting worse, you should see a health care provider. In particular, Dr. Nguyen said you should pay attention to prolonged lethargy, dehydration or high fever.
“These sometimes warrant immediate attention in the emergency room,” said Dr. Nguyen. “Most other times, a visit with your primary care provider will suffice.”
When you’re sick, what you really want to know is how to get rid of your cold fast. Start by treating your symptoms as follows:
- All symptoms: Stay hydrated with water. You can also drink Gatorade or other sports drinks for electrolytes. Kids (and even adults!) can drink Pedialyte or eat Pedialyte popsicles to stay hydrated while sick.
- Fever, pains and aches: Take Tylenol or ibuprofen.
- Sore throat: Gargle with salt water.
- Nausea: Consume ginger, a natural anti-nausea medicine.
You can also use over-the-counter cold and cough medicines, decongestants, nasal sprays and cough drops to relieve your cold symptoms. Chest vapor rubs, steamy showers and humidifiers are particularly helpful for alleviating congestion.
How can I avoid a summer cold?
When it comes to avoiding a summer cold, we should all be in good practice. Effective cold prevention utilizes the same COVID-19 precautions we’ve been living by for the last year and a half:
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water
- Use hand sanitizer as needed
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing
- Keep your distance from other people
- Wear a mask in crowded places if you’re prone to getting sick
Dr. Nguyen said wearing a mask can protect you and your family from most illnesses. Even before COVID-19, many health care workers had been masking up during flu season to decrease their chances of catching the virus.
“Overall, if we can continue using common sense routines, we will limit the spread of most illnesses,” said Dr. Nguyen.
As mentioned earlier, if there is any concern that you may have COVID-19, you should get tested. It is critical that we continue to prevent the spread of this deadly virus that has taken a toll on so many communities around the world.
Seeking care for mild to moderate cold symptoms? A virtual visit is a great way to speak face-to-face with a provider, without leaving home.