Yes, the Common Cold Is Caused by Coronaviruses—Here’s What You Should Know

Korin Miller
·4 mins read

From Prevention

The word “coronavirus” probably wasn’t even on your radar until early 2020. Understandably, all of the attention around it has focused on SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.

That’s why it’s easy to forget that many other illnesses, including the common cold, are actually caused by coronaviruses.

Using the word “coronavirus” right now generally means you’re talking about the kind that leads to COVID-19, but technically you could be talking about a variety of pathogens that cause a host of other viral illnesses. Here’s what you need to know about coronaviruses as a whole, and their link to the common cold.

What is a coronavirus, exactly?

Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Corona means ‘crown’ in Latin, which is how this virus family got its name,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

Coronaviruses have four main sub-groups: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. While they can infect people and animals, human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s. These are the seven known coronaviruses that can infect people, per the CDC:

  1. 229E (alpha coronavirus)

  2. NL63 (alpha coronavirus)

  3. OC43 (beta coronavirus)

  4. HKU1 (beta coronavirus)

  5. MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS)

  6. SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS)

  7. SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19)

In some cases, coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and infect humans, which is what happened with SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV.

Is the common cold caused by a coronavirus?

Yes, but not all colds are caused by a coronavirus. “Common colds can be caused by a variety of different viruses [and] one type that causes the common cold is the coronavirus,” says Prathit Kulkarni, M.D., assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.

The human coronaviruses 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1 are the ones that can cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses like the common cold, per the CDC.

Colds can also be caused by rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus, Dr. Watkins says.

How does the novel coronavirus compare to other forms of coronavirus?

The biggest difference lies in the effects and complications COVID-19 can cause in people, including heart problems, lung damage, and symptoms that may linger for months.

The common cold usually results in mild symptoms like a cough, runny nose, and congestion. While SARS-CoV-2 can cause similar symptoms, it can also do much more harm, especially in high-risk groups like the elderly or those who with underlying conditions.

“The frequency with which serious disease occurs with the novel coronavirus is substantially higher than that previously observed with the other coronaviruses that cause the common cold,” Dr. Kulkarni says.

He also points out that the original SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV have higher death rates than COVID-19, but “they did not spread as easily and as widely as SARS-CoV-2 has.”

How to protect yourself (and those around you) during cold and flu season

Many of the steps you would take to protect yourself from COVID-19 can also protect you from contracting the common cold or flu, Dr. Watkins says. The CDC specifically recommends the following:

  • Get vaccinated against the flu.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

  • Avoid attending large gatherings.

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water thoroughly and frequently. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with viruses.

  • Maintain a six-foot distance from people outside of your household.

  • Wear a face mask when you can not maintain a six-foot distance from others.

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