Why Isn't There a Vaccine for the Common Cold?

Woman blowing her nose

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Millions of cases of the common cold are reported across the United States each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the average adult catches at least two colds every year and children can get up to 10 colds a year. 

A viral infection, the common cold is typically mild with symptoms of runny nose, congestion, sore throat, sneezing, and cough, though some people may have more serious complications or secondary infection. 

Vaccines are an important public health strategy for preventing viruses like polio, measles, and influenza, yet there is currently no vaccine to protect against the common cold. Scientists have been trying to develop a vaccine for the common cold without success since the 1950s. However, new technologies may make it a reality in the near future.

Too Many Strains

Vaccines target a specific virus or pathogen. One difficulty with developing a vaccine for the common cold is there are at least 200 different viruses that can cause cold symptoms, including rhinovirus, coronavirus, adenoviruses, and parainfluenza.

Rhinovirus makes up about 75% of colds, but there are more than 150 strains circulating at the same time. At this time, there is currently no way for one vaccine to protect against all possible strains for the cold.

Mild Illness

Another factor in the equation is that colds are self-limiting, meaning they go away on their own typically within about a week. Although they are a nuisance and affect us all, they generally don't cause serious problems for people that impact their lives long-term.

Vaccine research is costly and takes a long time, so those dollars and hours are often allocated to creating vaccines and medications to treat and prevent illnesses that have a more serious impact on people's lives and health.

Vaccines have drastically improved public health across the globe and indisputably have saved millions of lives. But there aren't many people who die from the common cold, so spending time and effort on a vaccine to prevent it just isn't as important as creating a vaccine that can prevent cancer, HIV, ebola or any number of other serious diseases. In healthcare, saving lives and improving quality of life long term is more important than working to try to eliminate what is essentially just a nuisance.

A Future Vaccine

Very few things in the field of medicine are absolute as we are always making new discoveries. While in the short-term we’re unlikely to see a vaccine for the common cold or even a cure to treat it once we get it, scientists are still working on it.

It is possible that new technology will allow a vaccine to be created that will cover many of the viruses that cause the common cold in a single vaccine. The pneumonia vaccine, for example, contains 23 different bacterial strains. Researchers are trying to use similar technology to get 80 to 100 viral strains into a single vaccine. 

Another potential method of creating a comprehensive vaccine for the common cold in development involves using molecular sequencing to identify parts of the viral structure that’s shared among many strains. The theory is that inoculating with this common partial sequence could provide protection against multiple strains. 

A Word From Verywell

While the world waits for a vaccine for the common cold, the best you can do to prevent the common cold is to wash your hands and take other common-sense precautions to keep yourself as healthy as possible. If you get a cold, take care of yourself and stay away from people that might not get over it as quickly or as easily as you do. And be sure to get your annual flu shot.

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