Well, it’s happening. After slogging through a cold, you can finally breathe again…right as you start to hear sneezes, sniffles, and throat-clearing from your partner, cubemate, or someone else who’s basically always in your space. Looks like your old cold has a new home.
The last thing you want is to get steamrolled again by the very illness you just kicked. But is that even possible? Here, infectious disease experts lay out the science behind catching the same cold twice.
First, you should know that several different and extremely disrespectful viruses can cause the common cold.
They include rhinovirus (the usual source of the common cold), respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, coronavirus, and metapneumovirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All of these can prompt symptoms associated with the common cold, like a runny nose, cough, sore throat, sneezing, headache, and binge-watching Outlander for so long that you start thinking in a Scottish accent.
Each virus also has sub-categories of genetic diversity called serotypes (or strains), Alexander L. Greninger M.D., Ph.D., assistant director of the University of Washington Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratory, tells SELF. Rhinovirus, for instance, has over 100 serotypes, Dr. Greninger explains.
You’re not going to catch a cold from the same virus serotype again right after getting better. However, you can still get another cold from a different virus serotype or a different virus.
When you get sick, you develop antibodies for the virus serotype you’ve caught, Dr. Greninger explains. This keeps you from catching it again right away. But those antibodies won’t necessarily protect you from other forms of the virus.
Say you catch the serotype HRV (human rhinovirus)-A60, then improve right as your partner catches HRV-C17. You could get the common cold again if your body is vulnerable to that new rhinovirus serotype.
Alternately, you could have just triumphed over a coronavirus then come down with a rhinovirus from your cubemate soon after. Yes, it seems unfair. File your complaints with evolution and let us know when you hear back.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll always get sick if you’re exposed to a virus or virus serotype that’s different from the one you just got over. You may have developed antibodies for some circulating virus serotypes thanks to previous colds. Also, even though it’s not a guarantee, sometimes antibodies for one virus serotype do protect you from closely related serotypes, according to Merck Manuals.
Although it’s possible, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll catch two colds back-to-back in the same cold and flu season.
It’s rare that two cold-causing virus serotypes are circulating with the exact same intensity at the exact same time of year in a community, Waleed Javaid, M.D., director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown, tells SELF. So, if you get sick and someone in close proximity gets sick right after you, you may both have come down with the dominant serotype, against which you’re already protected. (Of course, they may have traveled and caught a different dominant illness from somewhere else, but generally speaking, they probably just caught your cold.)
This can be true even if you two experience different symptoms. If your cold mainly made your nose run and your throat feel scratched raw, but your partner has a cough, congestion, and body aches, that’s not a sign that you had a different virus or virus serotype, Dr. Javaid says.
Instead, it could simply be that your immune systems are focusing their efforts on fighting off the same virus serotype in different parts of your bodies, creating different symptoms, Dr. Greninger says. That’s the beauty of genetic diversity between two people. It could also be that you two have the same core symptoms but are experiencing additional ones due to “referred pain,” which is basically when one part of your body causes discomfort in another part since all your systems are interconnected.
Without lab testing, it’s basically impossible to know for certain whether or not you and another person got the same virus or virus serotype. You’re still totally welcome to blame your cold on that one person who came into work although they clearly should have been piled under blankets in bed.
If you’re feeling sick again after just “getting over” a cold, you may actually not have gotten over it to begin with.
You might be feeling residual symptoms from the original virus, Dr. Greninger says. Maybe your body is rebelling because you pushed yourself too hard without being fully healed, or maybe the cold is just hanging around more than you’re used to, Dr. Greninger says.
It’s normal for a cold to stick around for anywhere between a week and 10 days, according to the Mayo Clinic. If your cold is causing drastically worse sinus pain, headache, or throat soreness than you’re used to when sick, or if it comes with a fever over 101.3 degrees, a fever that lasts more than five days, or a fever returns after a fever-free period, it’s time to seek medical attention, the Mayo Clinic says. That also stands if you start experiencing wheezing or shortness of breath. A doctor’s appointment can help rule out or treat issues like a secondary bacterial infection.
FYI, it is possible to get the same virus serotype when the next cold and flu season rolls around (not that you’d really know it, anyway).
Viruses mutate just enough that sometimes the immunities you’ve developed are no longer effective. Rhinovirus is known to mutate quickly.
Influenza viruses, which cause the flu, are another example, Dr. Javaid says. They change enough every year that new flu vaccines are required to combat the most dominant flu viruses that season. But it does typically take time for viruses to evolve to the point where you’re no longer protected against a serotype, Dr. Javaid says. It would be rare for it to mutate enough in your community that you could catch it again in the same season, he adds.
Taking steps to avoid getting sick is much easier than trying to figure out if someone caught a different cold than you, putting you at risk of a repeat cold.
You might have heard that you should throw away your toothbrush, wash your sheets, or disinfect the house after an illness in order to avoid getting sick again. Since you don’t need to worry about getting sick from the same serotype, Dr. Javaid and Dr. Greninger both say these steps aren’t necessary to prevent re-infecting yourself.
If you’re trying to prevent a partner or anyone else you may live with from getting sick with your cold, frequently disinfecting surfaces you touch all the time, like doorknobs, is a good idea. You’re usually no longer contagious after about a week, according to the Cleveland Clinic, so that would be a good time to wash shared items like bedsheets.
Other tips to follow: Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom and blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, the CDC says. On a related note, cough and sneeze into tissues or your upper shirt sleeve to avoid spraying your germs through the air. Stay home from work if it’s at all possible. If not, try to avoid touching other people, back away from them when you need to cough or sneeze, and disinfect the items you touch frequently. Nobody wants to be Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion.