Causes of Frequently Recurring Cold and Flu Symptoms

By Anthony Komaroff, M.D.
Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

Question:

Anthony Komaroff, M.D., is professor of medicine and editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Publications at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Komaroff also is senior physician and was formerly director of the Division of General Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. Komaroff has served on various advisory committees to the federal government, and is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I get a lot of colds and flues, more than anyone I know. What are some possible reasons for this?

Answer:

Hundreds of different viruses can infect the respiratory system and cause colds and the flu. The respiratory system is your throat, sinuses, windpipe (trachea) and lungs. Symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, head congestion and cough can also be caused by allergies.

If you often get symptoms of a cold or flu, there could be three reasons:

  1. You are exposed to more respiratory system viruses than most people

  2. You are more susceptible to catching respiratory viruses than most people

  3. Your symptoms are really caused by allergies. (You call the symptoms "colds" but they are not caused by viral infections.)

Any adult who is exposed to young children a lot, such as parents and teachers, is exposed to all the viruses that children carry.

Except for some rare immune system diseases, most people are not more susceptible to catching virus infections. So while a rare disease is a possibility with you, I think it is unlikely.

Some people are more susceptible to allergies. Many people are allergic to things that are in outdoor or indoor air, such as pollen, dust, molds, or dander from household pets. I see lots of patients who think they have a cold, but it turns out they have allergies.

It might be worth talking to your doctor about allergies. There are probably lifestyle changes or treatments that could reduce your symptoms.

Last Annual Review Date: 2009-06-05T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: Copyright Harvard Health Publications

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More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold. There are more than 1 billion colds in the United States each year.