The Scientific Reason Why Your Colds May Be Worse Than Everyone Else's

According to a new study, the bacteria living in your nose could be to blame.

If you’re the type of sniffler who is struck by catastrophic colds—like way worse than your friends and family, you swear!—you might have a new culprit to blame: the bacteria living inside your nose.

That’s according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports. The researchers took samples from 152 people’s noses to examine the community of bacteria living there, aka their nasal microbiomes. People whose noses contained more of certain types of bacteria were found to have worse symptoms and more virus in their bodies after getting sick with rhinovirus, a common cause of colds.

“The first surprise was that you can kind of identify these different buckets that people kind of fit into, and then the fact that the buckets seem to have some impact on how you respond to the virus and how sick you get was also interesting,” study author Ronald B. Turner, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said in a statement. “There were effects on virus load and how much virus you shed in your nasal secretions. So the background microbiome, the background bacterial pattern in your nose, had influences on the way that you reacted to the virus and how sick you got.”

The researchers identified six of the buckets Dr. Turner mentions to classify people by their nasal bacteria. Those with more Staphylococcus bacteria had worse symptoms than those with less staph (which can cause skin infections).

That said, it’s not the staph—or any of the normal bacteria up your nostrils, for that matter—actually giving you the cold, Dr. Turner emphasized. “What we’re reporting is an association, so it’s entirely possible that the fact that you have staph in your nose and you have more symptoms is not directly related,” he said. “It may well be that there’s some underlying host characteristic that makes you likely to have staph in your nose and also makes you more likely to become ill.”

If the nasal microbiome is linked with cold symptoms, the researchers then wanted to find out if altering it with probiotics could alter cold symptoms, too. But after study participants drank a probiotic supplement, the researchers didn’t pick up any changes to the microbiomes of their noses.

“It’s not going to be so simple, I don’t think, as saying, ‘OK, what happens if you give a probiotic?’” Dr. Turner said. (It’s worth noting that several of the study authors have received funding from or were employees of DuPont, the manufacturer of the probiotics used in the research.) Future studies, he said, might investigate if antibiotics change the nasal microbiome—and whether that, in turn, affects cold symptoms.

In the meantime, if you’re the type to be plagued by a stuffy nose, a scratchy throat, and aches and pains that send you straight to bed, at least you can get some small comfort knowing you're not just imagining you've got it bad. Bone up on your cold-prevention habits: Getting plenty of sleep, eating a balanced diet with a wide range of colorful produce, and staying physically active can all help keep your immune system in tip-top shape. During cold and flu season, make sure you’re washing your hands on the regular. (And while it won't technically affect your odds of catching a cold, we can't resist an opportunity to remind you to get your flu shot, too.)

If you’re already in the middle of a miserable cold, go ahead and curse your nasal microbiome if you must. But make sure you’re taking in plenty of fluids and getting lots of rest, too.

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