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The question

I've been battling a nasty summer cough, sniffles and sore throat for three weeks now. Aren't colds suppose to be mainly a winter problem?

The answer

Having to deal with irritating cold symptoms after getting through our long Canadian winter can be frustrating and confusing. The reality is, however, we can all get colds in the summer, and they can linger longer than winter colds.

While summer and winter colds may feel different, they are caused by the same viruses. The most common bugs that cause colds in the winter are rhino/corona and parainfluenza viruses and in the summer, enterovirus can join the mix.

Enterovirus, like the others, is spread through droplets dispersed by coughing, sneezing and fecal-oral contamination. Beyond the regular cold symptoms such as runny nose and cough, enterovirus can also cause diarrhea and abdominal pain.

As in the winter, though, the key to colds is to prevent them in the first place. Viruses can survive for hours on surfaces and are easily transferred to the eyes, nose and mouth through touch. So take special precautions to regularly wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer after touching contaminated surfaces.

But some summertime activities do increase the risk of contracting a cold. For example, we tend to travel more during summer. When we travel in enclosed spaces, such as planes and trains, we share the air with others who may be sources of infection. The chance of catching a cold is directly related to the number of hours exposed, so being on a long-haul flight heightens the chance of catching a virus compared with a shorter trip.

In addition to travel, we tend to get out more and interact with others in the summer, which also increases our exposure to viruses.

Another risk factor for summer colds is air conditioning. While air conditioning makes our lives more comfortable, it also exposes our body to recirculated air. By breathing in this recycled air, we can irritate the lining of our nose, thus breaking down our natural barrier and allowing entry for viruses.

While summer is meant to be a time of fun and relaxation, the stress of entertaining and travel can also have an impact on our immune function.

Another factor in catching summertime cold has to do with the heat. In very hot weather, we may change our sleep patterns or lose more fluids than normal, leading to dehydration. Both of these situation weaken our body's ability to fight off infection, which is why summer colds may linger longer.

Finally, for those of us who suffer from allergies, the spring and summer months can take its toll on our respiratory system. Allergies can also trigger a reaction in the nasal and sinus passages, making us more sensitive to viral infection. If you suffer from allergies, treating them with antihistamines, nasal saline or steroid sprays can help decrease the irritation of the protective barrier in the nose and decrease infection.

If you do get a cold, take care of yourself by getting plenty of rest and hydrating well. Colds typically last approximately five to seven days. Antibiotics do not help with viral infections, so focus on treating your symptoms with analgesics, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen and nasal saline sprays.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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