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

Woman blowing her nose

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Vaccines are an important public health strategy for protecting people from viruses like measles and influenza, but there is currently no common cold vaccine. Scientists have been trying to develop one without success since the 1950s, partly because of colds aren't caused by one singular virus. However, new technologies may eventually make a common cold vaccine a reality.

There Are Numerous Viral 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. Still, there are more than 150 strains of it circulating at the same time.

At this time, there is currently no way for one vaccine to protect against all possible strains that can cause the common cold.

It's a Mild Illness

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

However, colds are self-limiting, meaning they go away on their own typically within about a week. Although they are a nuisance and affect everyone, they generally don't cause serious problems for people that impact their lives long-term.

That may not change your desire for a common cold vaccine, but more than public demand must be considered when weighing vaccine development decisions.

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.

A Future Vaccine

Very few things in the field of medicine are absolute as scientists are always making new discoveries. While a vaccine or cure for the common cold is unlikely in the short term, scientists are working on it.

It is possible that new technology will allow for the creation of a single vaccine that will cover many of the viruses that cause the common cold. 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 common cold vaccine. 

Another potential method of creating a comprehensive vaccine for the common cold 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. More research is needed.

A Word From Verywell

While the world waits for a vaccine for the common cold, the best thing you can do is take common-sense precautions to keep yourself as healthy as possible. If you do 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.

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Article Sources
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Updated February 11, 2019.

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  4. McLean GR. Developing a vaccine for human rhinoviruses. J Vaccines Immun. 2014;2(3):16-20. doi:10.14312/2053-1273.2014-3