12 Summer colds vs winter colds

Summer colds vs winter colds

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Immune System Expert
Ask Dr. Jen Tan

05 August 2014

The summer cold

The days have got longer, your suitcases are packed, and the sun is shining. You are dreaming of your summer holiday, the glowing tan you are about to develop while you listen to the sound of the waves at the beach…

And then you sneeze your throat becomes sore… your head begins to ache, and unpleasant memories of winter days spent curled up in bed with chicken soup and decongestants come flooding back with alarming clarity. Yes, this is not the annual bout of winter sniffles, but an unexpected attack of the summer cold.

How is a summer cold different to a winter cold?

A summer cold is not quite the same as its winter counterpart. Instead of being caused by the highly versatile and robust rhinovirus like many winter colds are, the summer cold is often caused by the somewhat more delicate, but more vicious enterovirus. This means that the symptoms may not be exactly the same – although in your sniffly, coughing state you may hardly notice the difference.

The winter cold might be short and violent, making you feel miserable for about a week, but the summer variety likes to hang around for a while. You may feel really rotten for a few days, but lingering coughs and feelings of tiredness can take a while before they go on their way. To add one further cheery note to this list, summer colds do have a habit of recurring, so that second and third doses are not uncommon.

Along with the typical symptoms of congestion, sore throats and coughing, you may also develop some symptoms with a summer cold that are more commonly associated with the flu, such as a fever, aching joints and general fatigue.

Summer colds can sometimes be mistaken for hayfever or other seasonal allergies, and for obvious reasons – it feels the wrong time of year for a cold, everybody else is complaining about hayfever, and your symptoms are uncharacteristically similar.

However, there are a few small hints that may give the game away. If your mucus is clear or slightly discoloured, it is likely to be a cold. If your nose, eyes and throat feel tickly and itchy, rather than painful and dry, this is more a sign of allergies, particularly if your eyes are puffy and bloodshot. Finally, troublesome as summer colds may be, they are not likely to last for several months at a time, nor be at their worst when the pollen count is high, though stranger things have happened…

What causes this troublesome summer cold?

Well, as mentioned, the fair-weather enterovirus enjoys the milder conditions of the summer as opposed to the winter-cold-inducing rhinovirus, which thrives in cooler conditions. However, there are certain summer tendencies and habits which invite the enterovirus into your system:

A sudden zeal for exercise – for obvious reasons summer encourages us to get out our running shoes far more than cold and rainy winter nights, and while it is good and important for us to exercise, sometimes launching into too much too quickly can run our immune systems down a bit. Additionally, during the winter, we do not seem to mind spending a few days wrapped up warm inside, letting our bodies recover from a cold, but in the summer, we tend to keep going that bit more. This doesn’t give our bodies the time it needs to fight off infection, as energy has to be diverted into sustaining our summer escapades.

Prolonged use of air-conditioning – just as it can be nice to spend a bit of time outside, being cooped up inside a hot stuffy room inside can be truly unpleasant. This is where many of us find ourselves rediscovering the delights of air-conditioning, wallowing in the pleasant cooling breeze. However, this has the effect of making our mouths and noses dry, meaning that the mucous lining of our respiratory tracts become less sticky and less effective at its enterovirus-trapping job. Not only this, but the virus finds it far easier to take lodgings to multiply in the dry environment, as it is not being swept away by a lovely flow of mucus.

A burst of stress – summer holidays are our chance to relax and enjoy watching the world go by… but what about the pre-holiday work deadlines, the suitcases that need to be packed, the planes that need to be caught, the hassle of hotels and communication in foreign languages. Stress can weaken our immune system, making us more prone to catching pesky colds, whether it is in the winter or summer.

Long-haul flying – not only are you sharing a fairly confined space with 400 other germ-ridden people, but you are surrounded by their coughs and sneezes for several hours. Research suggests that the length of time spent in the air and exposed to bugs dramatically increases your chances or developing an infection.

Foreign environment – when away from home, your body will be facing a whole host of new or unfamiliar viruses which can play havoc with your immune system. Not only this, but different foods can upset your digestive system, meaning that you are not efficiently absorbing nutrients, weakening your immune defences.


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