How many colds do you get in a year? The answer may be very different from person to person. So if it seems like you get sick with every illness going around while your friends are always spared, you might not be imagining it.
While it can be frustrating to wake up with classic cold symptoms seemingly every few weeks or months, for some of us, it's not that uncommon. It's quite normal to get a cold or flu multiple times in a year, experts tell TODAY.com.
We're regularly exposed to all kinds of illnesses including common cold viruses, such as rhinoviruses and enteroviruses, as well as the flu, respiratory syncytial virus, adenovirus and COVID-19. And some people really are more likely to get sick more easily and frequently than others.
For most adults, it's normal to get somewhere between one and three colds per year, 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, tells TODAY.com.
But the truth is that "people vary a lot," he adds. "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."
If you're someone who gets colds frequently, that may be related to your age and how often you're exposed to illnesses in your daily life. Of course, if more illnesses are circulating — and if those colds are particularly easy to spread — that also makes it more likely that you'll get sick.
But whether you're one of those people who can skip out on whatever illness is going around or you feel like illnesses just stick to you, there are some easy ways to prevent colds and stay healthier.
Why do I get colds so often?
- Adults typically get between one and three colds annually, experts tell TODAY.com.
- Common causes for frequent colds include your age and your level of exposure, including your job or your social life. Differences in your individual immune system also play a role.
- Prevent frequent colds by washing your hands frequently, getting adequate nutrition, reducing stress and sleeping well.
- Get vaccinated against preventable illnesses, such as the flu and COVID-19. Older adults can also get the RSV vaccine.
How many colds per year do people normally get?
As it turns out, this is a surprisingly hard question to answer, the experts say.
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, tells TODAY.com.
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, tells TODAY.com.
Once kids get older and can practice proper hand hygiene, the number of colds they'll get tends to go down to about four to six times per year, Esper continues. "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 how often get a cold, Yang says.
Your level of exposure
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 explains.
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 says.
Your age matters a lot 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 explains, which is very different from your exposure as an adult working in an office.
"By the time you reach your 30s and 40s, you've actually been exposed to a lot of common cold viruses and have some immunity against them," Andy Pekosz, Ph.D., virologist and professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells TODAY.com.
On the other hand, "kids have virtually no immunity to many of these common colds," he says, so they're much more susceptible.
“Preschoolers are at the highest risk because they’re in a crowded area with a bunch of other children, and none of them have very good hygiene,” Esper says. “What’s the hygiene of a 2-year-old? Well, that’s no hygiene, really. And that’s normal.”
Parents of young kids are also exposed to all the illnesses their children bring home. "Parents, if they have kids who are in day care or kindergarten, they tend to get a lot more colds because of exposures," Dr. Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System, tells TODAY.com.
Your immune system
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 explains.
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 says.
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 says.
"Not every exposure ends up with an infection," Camins says. But if you are immunocompromised, you're more susceptible to getting infected even if your exposure level is the same as other people's, Camins explains. "You're just more likely to get infected because your immune systems are weaker."
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 says.
Multiple viruses circulating
There's one other less obvious factor that might be making you feel like you're getting more colds than usual: multiple illnesses can be circulating at the same time.
This past fall and winter, for instance, the U.S. saw high numbers of flu, RSV and COVID-19 cases all at the same time — particularly among children. That so-called "tripledemic" was partly due to "a complete lack of seasonality,” Murray says, with RSV and flu cases spiking earlier than during pre-pandemic years and COVID-19 thrown into the mix.
When kids were mostly staying home due to the pandemic, experts think that many of them may have missed out on getting RSV — and the protection against future illnesses that provides. When precautions lessened, children were exposed to RSV again in larger numbers than usual, causing a surge.
After such a widespread RSV wave last year, experts don’t expect to see a surge of the same magnitude this year.
"After a couple of years of this pandemic effect, we're probably now going to start seeing (patterns in the U.S.) come back to what we saw pre-pandemic, in terms of the circulation of RSV, and influenza and other respiratory viruses," Pekosz says. "These viruses quickly come back to an equilibrium where case numbers are then lower again because that pre-existing immunity is back in the population."
As of Nov. 21, 2023, respiratory virus season is beginning to take off. After weeks of decline and flattening in COVID-19 hospitalizations, estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now show an 8.6% rise in those numbers in the past week. And flu and RSV cases are beginning to rise as well, NBC News reported.
Experts are also monitoring a few concerning new coronavirus variants. First, there's EG.5, also called Eris, which is descended from the XBB family of omicron strains, Pekosz says. The updated COVID-19 vaccines specifically target this group of strains, so it's likely to be a good match to protect against EG.5.
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 says.
During the height of the pandemic, people were staying home, wearing masks and social distancing. And we saw a huge drop-off in COVID-19 cases, as well as flu, RSV and other illnesses.
That's a reminder "that there are things that you could do that really minimize your exposure to viruses," Esper says.
Limit exposure to people who are sick.
Keep your distance from people who are ill if you can. And, if you're sick and able to stay home, you should do that to avoid spreading the illness to others, Esper recommends.
Wash your hands frequently.
"The best thing has always been good hand-washing," Esper says.
Pekosz agrees: "Hand-washing is a great way to prevent yourself from the common cold," he says, adding that people should be mindful about properly covering sneezes and coughs around others.
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 adds.
Wear a mask in shared spaces.
Especially around people who may be sick and crowded, indoor areas where illnesses tend to spread easily.
There's another "underappreciated" benefit of masking, too: "Not only does masking filter the air, but it also prevents us from touching our nose and our mouth with dirty hands," Murray says.
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 says.
And, if you're sick, Camins suggests wearing a mask around others to help prevent spreading the illness.
Keep an eye on what illnesses are going around.
Pay attention to what's circulating in your area to "get a sense for what you need to watch out for," Murray says. That includes COVID-19, but also other illnesses, like the flu and RSV.
Test for COVID-19.
Even if your symptoms are mild and "cold-like," it's still important to rule out COVID-19.
"We expect to not see a massive surge in these cases this year, but they'll be around," Pekosz says. "People should still think about testing themselves for COVID-19 if they have mild symptoms because it's better to test yourself and have COVID than to risk walking around thinking you have a cold when you actually have COVID."
Get your flu vaccine and stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations because they can help prevent severe disease, Murray says.
Back in September, health officials signed off on new versions of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been updated to target a newer coronavirus strain, XBB.1.5, a descendent of omicron. Because so many of the currently circulating variants are similar to this one, the updated shots are also expected to protect against other strains, TODAY.com reported previously.
Everyone ages 5 and up should get a dose of the updated vaccines, the CDC recommends, while younger kids may need more than one dose to be considered up to date.
For flu, the vaccine recommendations are still the same, Camins says. Everyone 6 months of age and up should get a flu vaccine.
Plus, you can get your flu vaccine and updated COVID-19 vaccine at the same appointment, experts say. That can help you build up protection against both illnesses sooner and cross two items off your to-do list at once.
Adults aged 60 and older can now get an RSV vaccine. And infants can also receive a monoclonal antibody up to 8 months of age, Camins says, which will protect them during their first winter season. Another vaccine, given to pregnant people, can help prevent RSV during their baby's first six months.
Young infants and older adults have a higher risk for developing severe, even life-threatening complications from RSV.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle generally.
Engaging in generally healthful behaviors can help keep your immune system functioning properly. That includes regular physical activity, eating nutritious meals, reducing stress and getting enough quality sleep.
But the experts say there isn't enough conclusive evidence for taking any supplements like vitamin C to prevent colds. "Unfortunately, there just aren't any shortcuts," Yang says.