Having a cold during winter doesn’t always feel like as much of an ordeal as a summer cold. You expect to get sick in winter, so you’re more mentally prepared to spend a day wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, guzzling cough syrup until you feel better (or at least get mildly buzzed). Summer colds, on the other hand, just suck: You can’t build yourself a comforting blanket fort because it’s hot AF outside, and the air conditioning only makes you feel worse. And you don’t want to call in sick since your boss will just assume you’re hung over, because who gets sick in summer?
That said, there’s no evidence that summer colds are actually worse than winter colds. In fact, they’re exactly the same thing. So where did this belief come from?
One idea popularized by some health writers is that summer colds are made worse by enteroviruses. Or as this LiveScience article explains, “The rhino-, corona- and parainfluenza viruses that cause upper respiratory infections in winter are joined in the warmer months by a particularly nasty accomplice: Enterovirus, which can cause more complicated symptoms [including fever, sore throat, hacking cough, diarrhea and skin rash].”
But while that’s true — enteroviruses are more prevalent during summertime, and they can take a cold from bad to worse — primary care physician Marc Leavey tells us that this argument isn’t right since they’re not technically “cold” viruses:
“The premise that summer colds are worse than winter colds requires a redefinition of the term ‘cold.’ Nominally, a ‘cold’ is an upper-respiratory infection — this includes coughing, congestion, sneezing and a sore throat. What the writers of these articles did was expand the definition of a cold to include infections caused by enteroviruses, which promote gastrointestinal issues. Following this logic, you could include influenza — a virus that shows up during winter — to augment the severity of winter colds.”
In other words, the cold itself remains the same: Summer colds are only made to sound worse by lumping in the symptoms of other medical conditions.
Leavey also adds that colds aren’t any more prevalent in the summertime than they are in the wintertime, either: “In the summertime, crowds, travel and exposure to new viruses in new places can contribute to the spread of infections, while in the wintertime, crowded interiors — like stores, malls and schools — and recirculated air [due to heaters] can contribute to the spread of colds.”
So as for which is really the worst? “The worst cold is the one you have right now,” Leavey emphasizes. “Summer or winter, it doesn’t matter — it’s a cold!”
That means no matter what the season, wash your hands, cover your mouth and please (PLEASE!) don’t come to work if you’re feeling under the weather. Because irate colleagues feel just the same in either season, too.