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Tips for Battling a Summer Cold

Last updated: July 29, 2021

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.

What causes summer colds?

Like winter colds, viruses cause most summer colds, though some can be bacterial in nature. You’re more likely to catch a type of virsus called an enterovirus during the warmer months of the year. Rhinoviruses, on the other hand, survive better in colder weather.

Enteroviruses cause up to 15 million illnesses in the United States every year. Most of these 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. They can cause other, more severe symptoms as well.

Winter colds commonly spread because people are indoors and in closer contact with one another. Similarly, summer colds can spread at large social gatherings where you may interact with many people and get exposed to more viruses and bacteria.

“Anything you come in contact with can spread a cold, including, but not limited to, aerosolized particles or something you physically touch,” Dr. Nguyen says.

What symptoms do Summer colds cause?

The most common symptoms of a summer cold are:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Sinus pressure
  • Sore throat
  • Low energy
  • Muscle aches

Additional symptoms of summer colds are more specific 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
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Pink eye
  • 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

What’s the Difference between a summer cold and allergies?

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.

To determine whether it’s a cold or allergies, 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. 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 likely experiencing allergies.
  • Do I feel tired and weak?
    Colds can cause fatigue, exhaustion, and muscle aches. Allergies, while miserable, rarely make you tired or achy.
  • What type of medicine makes 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 likely experiencing allergies.

why DO summer colds feel worse than winter colds?

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 definitive 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,” Dr. Nguyen says. “The difference in response is not in a person’s head, but instead is 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. The right treatment can help minimize symptoms.

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, and high fever.

“These sometimes warrant immediate attention in the emergency room,” Dr. Nguyen says. “Most other times, a visit with your primary care provider will suffice.”

How do I find relief?

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. Opt for low-sugar options. Kids (and even adults!) can drink Pedialyte or eat Pedialyte popsicles to stay hydrated while sick.
  • Fever, pains and aches: Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Sore throat: Gargle with salt water.
  • Nausea: Try 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 uses the same COVID-19 precautions we’ve been living with 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 says wearing a mask can help 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,” Dr. Nguyen says.

An important note about COVID-19

As mentioned earlier, if there is any concern that you may have COVID-19, you should get tested. It’s critical that we continue to prevent the spread of this deadly virus that has taken a toll on so many communities around the world.

Use our COVID-19 symptom checker to determine if you may be at risk, and check out our COVID-19 resources page for trusted, expert answers to all of your questions about the virus.

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.

Tags: Allergies Cold common cold illness prevention immune systemy seasonal allergies

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