What to Know About Summer Colds
An expert explains why people may be experiencing cold and flu symptoms this summer, and how to tell the difference between COVID-19, a cold, and allergies.
While people are accustomed to dealing with runny noses and scratchy throats in the fall and winter, many are experiencing the same symptoms this summer.
This could be due to a number of reasons, according to Dr. Judy Tung, section chief of Adult Internal Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Cold and flu viruses are continuing to circulate — in fact, in late April and early May, New York state saw an unusual spike in influenza — coinciding with summer allergies, not to mention an uptick in COVID-19 cases due to the rise of Omicron subvariants.
“Summer cold symptoms are common and confusing this year not only because of COVID but also because of the late flu peak,” says Dr. Tung.
To understand what viruses are circulating now and how to tell the difference between a summer cold, allergies, and COVID-19, Health Matters spoke with Dr. Tung, who is also associate dean for faculty development at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Health Matters: The CDC reported an “unusually low” amount of flu activity last year. What have you seen this year with the flu and colds?
We started to see a resurgence of flu at the end of 2021, and then a big drop in cases at the beginning of 2022, during the initial Omicron surge. But with the relaxation of masking and distancing this spring, influenza experienced a late peak.
As for colds, this summer I’ve seen a lot more GI symptoms that accompany colds — vomiting and diarrhea in addition to fever, congestion and cough. This probably speaks to a dominance of enterovirus, a common summer cold virus that can produce more GI symptoms or pink eye symptoms than rhinovirus, which is more dominant in the winter. This can be confusing, because COVID also causes GI symptoms.
Why are we usually able to avoid bad colds in the summer? Why are colds lasting longer?
One theory for why colds are lasting longer is that the immune system got a little forgetful, not having been exposed to the most current viral strains, and therefore is less prepared to fight them off. The immune system builds antibodies and other memory white blood cells to fight off pathogens after being exposed to them. When our immune systems are exposed to cold viruses all year long, they are “on the ready.” That didn’t happen last year because of all the precautions people took to protect themselves against COVID.
“It is important to get tested for COVID if you have cold symptoms — not because you are going to get gravely ill, but because you may inadvertently pass it along to someone who could get gravely ill.”
— Dr. Judy Tung
What are the biggest differences in symptoms between common colds, allergies, and COVID-19?
COVID is associated with loss of smell and taste, or unusual tastes that are not common in uncomplicated colds. Sinus infections can do this, but regular colds typically don’t affect smell or taste to the degree we see in COVID-19.
Allergies can really feel like a cold, down to the body aches when allergies are severe. Allergies do not produce fever and normally take many days of postnasal dripping to cause a cough, whereas colds and COVID can move to coughing swiftly.
What’s the best way to care for summer colds?
There is little difference in the way we care for summer and winter colds — drink fluids and get plenty of rest. One advantage of summer is that you can open windows to ensure that shared space is well ventilated, especially if there is a member in the household who is sick.
With the rise of the Omicron subvariants, what is important to keep in mind when you come down with what seems to be an ordinary cold or allergy symptoms?
It is important to get tested for COVID if you have cold symptoms — not because you are going to get gravely ill, but because you may inadvertently pass it along to someone who could get gravely ill.
Vaccination and boosting definitely protect people from severe COVID infection, preventing hospitalization and death. However, Omicron is highly infectious, and there is increasing evidence that while the vaccines are still proving to protect us against severe COVID, they are not as effective against stopping us from getting infected or reinfected.
Furthermore, there is some recent evidence that while Omicron is definitely milder than Delta, it is more contagious and may linger for longer, so I encourage people to stay masked for 10 to 14 days and to use home antigen tests and look for a negative test to guide them on when they can relax with masking again.