— Sore throats, runny noses and hacking coughs are hard enough to live with in the dead of winter, but when the world is sunny and 80 and spilling over with beach barbecues and baseball games, they’re positively criminal.
“It’s absolutely unjust to give me a cold at this time of year,” says Anne Macdonald, a 57-year-old media relations director from Ithaca, N.Y, who was rudely taken out by sniffles and sneezing fits just as the weather began to turn. “The sun’s out and the temperatures have gone up and I’m down with a cold and it’s not fair. It’s past cold season and I should be done with them. I’ve had my share.”
We’ve actually had more than our share of ailments this season, particularly the flu, which has not only lingered longer than normal, it’s been joined by the H1N1 swine flu virus, which has now spread to all 50 states and much of the globe.
In a typical year, “cold season goes pretty much through the school year and flu season is narrower, usually falling between December and March,” says Dr. Neil Schachter, medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and author of “The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu.” “This is a very unusual season.”
Generally, the U.S. suffers through 1 billion to 2 billion colds annually with the average adult coming down with about two a year (kids have three to four times that amount). Summer colds, while more annoying, are less common since we tend to be outdoors more (as opposed to huddling inside coughing and sneezing all over each other) and because the sun’s ultraviolet rays kill cold viruses, which can live on surfaces for up to 24 hours.
Unfortunately, some of the 200 or so viruses that cause common colds are still able to survive and infect us — usually just in time to ruin a long-awaited vacation.
“I once had a summer cold that I spread around to a few people,” says Debra Ziss, a 38-year-old illustrator from Brooklyn. “My partner and a good friend ended up with it and then we all went to Argentina. They were hacking the whole time we were there and hating me.”
Cranky and coughing
Dr. Paul Kassab, who practices internal medicine at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, says patients get especially cranky about summer colds.
“In the wintertime, they probably like it as an excuse not to go to work, but in the summer, they don’t want to be inconvenienced, to not have fun,” he says. “It’s a little bit different this year because of the swine flu, but overall, summer colds are just an inconvenience for people. They’re concerned about whether they can travel, so it’s like ‘What if I don’t get better? Am I contagious? Am I going to put my grandparents at risk?’”
But even when travel’s not in the picture, summer sniffles just seem more offensive.
“I absolutely loathe summer colds,” says Jennifer Byrne, a 37-year-old marketing professional from Glassboro, N.J. “In the winter, they’re not exactly fun, but at least they fit in with the hibernating sleep, the cracked skin, the chapped lips. But summer colds seem grossly unnatural.”
The blame game
The resentment runs so deep, in fact, people will often point fingers at the guilty party.
“My niece and nephew were involved in the cold I had in April, but they weren’t implicated in the cold I have now,” says Byrne. “That was my husband.”
While there’s no difference between the viruses that cause winter colds and summer colds, Schachter says there is a difference in the way we respond to them which may explain why summer colds are often considered more vile.
“In the wintertime, when you get a cold you don’t run out and go swimming or sit in the park,” he says. “You bundle up and drink a lot of tea. You eventually get better.”
Seduced by the sun
Summer is more seductive, though. Instead of staying indoors with a cup of hot tea, we head off to picnics and pool parties and Fourth of July parades.
“In the summer, you have this feeling that you’re missing out on something so you tend to get out more,” he says. “You’re not resting as much; you’re around other people and picking up extra viruses. You’re increasing your activity and that may stretch out the duration of the cold.”
Allergies and air conditioning can also complicate matters.
“A cold can come on the heels of an allergic season because allergies irritate the airway and make them more susceptible to infection,” says Schachter.
While air conditioning can often help with allergies since it takes a lot of the moisture and pollen out of the air, it can also set the stage for infection.
“Cold dry air tends to dry out the mucous membrane of your nose and mouth and that can make you more susceptible to irritants and infection,” he says.
The best advice? Keep your immune system strong by getting enough sleep and avoiding cigarettes and excess alcohol and if you do get accosted by a summer cold, slow down.
“I’m not one to throw a wet blanket on a picnic, but you need to do what’s reasonable,” Schachter says. “Activity is good but I wouldn’t go out there and start playing volleyball if you’re really sick. First of all, you’ll probably infect all your teammates and second of all, it’s going to tire you out and make your cold last longer.”
And in this weather, that would be a crime.