The common cold - in summary, an acute upper respiratory tract viral infection - is one of the most frequent viral infections in humans and can be caused by about 200 viral types [Eccles (2005)]. Symptoms are thought to be caused by the immune response in the host, rather than by actual damage caused by the virus [(Hendley (1998)].

My question: is there a correlation between the symptoms observed during a common cold and the viral type that causes the infection? Of course, one can find out the cause of the infection diagnostically by taking samples and isolating DNA or setting up cultures, but that is not my question. My question is whether it is possible to predict the virus taxon causing the infection by symptoms.

My prediction from the information I have at hand is that it should, at least in tendency, be possible as different infections agents use different infection pathways that in return invoke different immune responses and, finally, symptoms [Eccles and Weber, ed. p. 107 - 147 (2009)]. However, I found a rather dated article by Tyrrell et al. (1993) that analyses infections caused by several rhinovirus strains, a coronavirus, and of the respiratory syncytial virus (virus taxa among the most common infectious agents for common colds). They conclude that the main difference between colds induced by different viruses is in duration of the incubation period, whereas patterns of symptom development were not substantially different with different viruses. So is this the current state-of-the-art?

  • $\begingroup$ The strains can mean the difference between mild or severe symptoms though (just think spanish flu vs H1N1). Symptoms can also be different depending on the person infected (some have headaches, some don't) since it depends alot on how your body reacts to the virus, I would think that differentiating viruses by the symptoms would be extremely hard, but severe symptoms could suggest some specific strains for example. $\endgroup$
    – Dart Feld
    Nov 10, 2016 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ Not going to post as an answer because finding the literature to support it would be too time consuming. No, symptoms are inadequate to differentiate among viral agents with a few rare exceptions. There is a dearth of research because it doesn't really matter, does it? There is no treatment for the vast majority of respiratory viruses, and more importantly, the illness is for the most part mild and self-limiting. To fund research, there has to be a fairly good reason besides curiosity (like ability to treat/prevent, or infection causes significant morbidity/mortality, e.g. RSV/H1N1.) $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2016 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ You cannot necessarily identify the cause of a particular case of the common cold by culture or nucleic acid tests. These tests will tell you if an organism is present, not if it is causing disease, and many of these organisms are present in samples from individuals who do not have a cold. $\endgroup$
    – De Novo
    Sep 14, 2018 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse I think the dearth of research is more the result of lack of interest than lack of a reason. The common cold is one of the most common causes of provider visits and causes substantial economic burden on a population level. The treatment is simple and appears to be effective: empathy, reassurance, and counseling about appropriate otc remedies for symptom relief. $\endgroup$
    – De Novo
    Sep 14, 2018 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ @DeNovo - "the dearth of research is more the result of lack of interest..." There is no lack of interest (or research) in the common cold; as you said, it is a very significant societal burden. What there is no interest in is correlating the very, very common symptoms with which of the hundreds of possible viruses may be the cause. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2018 at 23:49


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