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Why do some people get colds frequently and others don’t?

Experts share their best tips to prevent colds and keep you healthy.

If you feel like you get every cold going around, you might not be imagining it. Some people are just primed to get colds more easily and frequently than others, experts told TODAY.

Most adults get between somewhere between one and three colds per year, but "people vary a lot," Dr. Otto Yang, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told TODAY.

"There are people that feel like they're sick the whole cold and flu season and other people that seem to be untouched by it," he said.

The exact number of colds you might experience every year depends on a lot of individual factors. Whether you're one of those people who can evade every cold going around or you feel like every illness just sticks to you, there are some easy ways to prevent colds and stay healthier this year.

How many colds per year do people normally get?

As it turns out, this is a surprisingly hard question to answer, the experts said.

The number of colds you'll get in a year will be highly individual because it depends on "how often you're exposed to people in public and what kind of activities you engage in that are going to put you at risk for getting frequent colds," Dr. Thomas Murray, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine, told TODAY.

The normal amount of colds for you also depends on your age, likely because you have different levels of exposure to other people and illnesses at different points in your life, Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY.

The short answer? Research suggests that, for preschool-aged kids, it's not unusual to have very frequent colds — up to one every month, Esper said. Once kids get older and are able to practice hand hygiene, the number of colds they'll get tends to go down to about four to six times per year, Esper continued. "And by the time you're an adult, it's about two to three times a year."

So, why do I get colds all the time?

There are a few different factors that determine whether or not you get a cold, Yang said. First, there's your level of exposure to a particular virus (and whether or not you take precautions to reduce that). Then there's the way your immune system reacts to that exposure, Yang explained.

Someone who tends not to go out and washes their hands all the time is going to be less likely to get colds than someone who is very social or has a job that requires them to interact with other people frequently, Murray said.

That's why, as mentioned above, your age matters so much when it comes to cold frequency. The type of exposure you get in preschool is likely very different than what you get as a college student, Esper explained, which is very different than your exposure as an adult working in an office.

“Preschoolers are the highest at risk because they’re in a crowded area with a bunch of other children, and none of them have very good hygiene,” Esper said. “What’s the hygiene of a 2-year-old? Well, that’s no hygiene, really. And that’s normal.” (And, yes, that’s why parents also get sick so frequently, he said.)

After you're exposed to a particular pathogen, your individual immune system determines whether or not you actually get sick. "People exist along the spectrum of being able to deal with certain types of infections better or worse," Yang explained. The immune system is immensely complex, and small variations, defects and genetic differences between people can all play a role in determining whether you get sick and how sick you get, he said.

There's one other less obvious factor that might be making you feel like you're getting more colds than usual: “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now is a complete lack of seasonality,” Murray said,

Before the pandemic, there was typically just one major illness circulating at a time, Murray said. So, if you got sick with respiratory syncytial virus, you would get some protection against that virus for the rest of the season, he explained. "Now, you can run into someone with RSV on Monday and on Tuesday run into someone with rhinovirus or parainfluenza virus," he said. "It's just a lot circulating."

The good news is that, for most people who get colds frequently, “their immune systems may not be perfect, but they’re unlikely to have a serious problem,” Murray said.

In some cases, people who get sick frequently have an underlying condition affecting their immune systems. In those situations, people (especially kids) are more likely to require hospitalization for an infection and experience weight loss, severe fatigue and rare infections that others don't typically get, Murray said.

How to stop getting colds all the time:

In terms of behavior, "the best thing (we can do to prevent colds) is the same things we've been doing for the last two-and-a-half years now," Esper said. He noted that, during 2020 when people were staying home, wearing masks and social distancing, there was a huge dropoff in COVID-19 cases as well as flu, RSV and other illnesses.

While we certainly don't want to live that way for a prolonged period of time, "it shows that there are things that you could do that really minimize your exposure to viruses," Esper said.

That includes:

  • Limit exposure to people who are sick. And if you're sick, stay home, Esper recommended.
  • Wash your hands frequently. "The best thing has always been good hand-washing," Esper said. If you can't wash your hands when you're out and about, "using hand sanitizer to kill off a lot of these viruses can be very effective," Yang added.
  • Wear a mask in shared spaces, especially around people who may be sick. One of the "underappreciated" benefits of masking is that "not only does masking filter the air, but it also prevents us from touching our nose and our mouth with dirty hands," Murray said. In that way, a mask prevents you from "transferring a virus you may have picked up from a surface (to your nose or mouth)," Yang said.
  • Pay attention to what's circulating in your area to "get a sense for what you need to watch out for," Murray said. That includes COVID-19, but also other illnesses, like the flu and RSV.
  • Get your flu vaccine and COVID-19 booster because they can help prevent severe disease, Murray said.
  • Engage in generally healthful behaviors, including regular physical activity, eating nutritious meals, reducing stress and getting enough quality sleep.

But the experts said there isn't enough conclusive evidence for any supplements like vitamin C to prevent colds. "Unfortunately, there just aren't any shortcuts," Yang said.