In the news reports after the murderer of John Allen Chau on the Andaman Islands, I have several times read that common cold could kill this tribe, for example in this AFP-report:

Fears that 21st century diseases as mild as the common cold could kill off the tribe

Is this really true?

My understanding of common cold is that there is basically an infinite number of different diseases (that is, different versions of bacterias or viruses) that is called common cold and after each cold you have you become immune to that specific pathogen but remain non-immune to all others that you haven't contracted. Obviously, most occurrences of common cold is not deadly although, if my understanding is correct, you are as non-immune to them as this tribe. So, is this claim that common cold could kill these people really true?

(Yes, the news reports also mentions measles and flu, but for these diseases there are vaccins you could offer this tribe)

  • 2
    There are fatal incidences of the common cold, which at least proves that the common cold can be lethal. However, it does not yet back up the claim that indigenous populations would be more susceptible.
    – Narusan
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 9:15
  • Yes, of course people die from common cold, especially the elderly and newborn and other risk groups, but generally that happens when you combine it with some other condition.
    – d-b
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 10:00
  • 3
    @Narusan, in the article you linked, the individuals infected by Adenovirus died from pneumonia (mentioned 10 times) and not from common cold (not mentioned in the article). If Adenovirus is known to cause common cold and someone dies from the complications of the infection, it is misleading to say he/she died from common cold. If one has common cold and later develops pneumonia and dies from it, he/she died from pneumonia, not from common cold.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 9:43
  • Pneumonia can be caused by viruses. To say the virus that caused the pneumonia is not the cause of death is misleading.
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 15:30
  • Yes, it is Adenovirus that can kill you, but not common cold.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 15:46

2 Answers 2


It is extremely unlikely that common cold as such would kill you, but the complications could.

The definition of a common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat as reflected from its Latin names nasopharyngitis or rhinopharyngitis.

It is usually pneumonia as a complication of common cold (or flu or measles...) that can be deadly. A young student recently died in the US from pneumonia as a complication of common cold caused by Adenovirus (S Daily News).

The risk factors for common cold complications can include impaired immunity (hereditary or acquired), anatomical abnormalities of the respiratory system, co-existent lung or other disease and old age.


To answer "I have several times read that common cold could kill this tribe": The article does not claim that common cold can kill them, but they believe it could kill them:

Fears that 21st century diseases as mild as the common cold could kill off the tribe, or that experiencing electricity and the internet would devastate their lifestyle, has left them in a guarded bubble...

  • But how can we know that those tribal people would also be extremely unlikely to die? Perhaps early exposure to any variety of adenovirus provides some degree of resistance to all varieties, and they would lack such exposure.
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 21:34
  • I just explained above. The linked article about the tribe does not mention any factual association between a common cold and death but just their belief that it can kill them. Only this. Adenovirus does not likely kill you by common cold but by complications, such as pneumonia.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 9:22

Adding to Jan's answer, I found this, which was just published today. Emphasis is mine.


Last to succumb were the Jarawa, who live in dense forests on the western edge of South and Middle Andaman Islands and, until 1998, were defending their territory with their lives. They killed settlers who ventured into their territory to fish or hunt game, and got killed in return. That year however, they succumbed to decades of pacification efforts originally developed by Maurice V. Portman, a colonial administrator. Boatloads of Indian officials and anthropologists would land on Jarawa beaches, leave gifts of bananas, red cloth and other goodies from civilization, and retreat. The Jarawa were eventually seduced into laying down their arms and interacting with settlers in peace. Almost instantly, they were beset by epidemics of pneumonia, mumps, measles and other diseases; even the common cold seemed to be lethal to them. No one knows how many died.

So there seems to be evidence that contact with long-isolated tribes can be lethal to them via the common cold.

  • 1
    A reporter saying "even the common cold seemed to be lethal to them" is not already an evidence.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 9:53
  • @Jan I didn't say it is. This is historical anecdote and I very seriously doubt any sort of hard evidence exists because obtaining such evidence would involve the risk of killing people. I also don't think you can assert that the common cold cannot kill people completely naive to the adenovirus family. You have no evidence to back that up either.
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 15:28
  • The main confusion in this thread stems from the term "common cold." For me, and by definition, it is a viral infection limited to the nose and throat. As such, it is very unlikely to kill anyone. But when the viruses progress to the lungs, they can kill you. So, the question is if Adenovirus (or other viruses that usually cause only common cold) can be deadly or not. The whole discussion is about the medical language used. I am not aware of anyone that would die from common cold but, apparently, several people have died from Adenovirus.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 15:43
  • The "common cold" is caused by upwards of 200 different viruses. I would expect that more than one species has caused deaths.
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 15:56
  • Yes, and it would be the virus, or more precisely, the complication of viral infection, that would kill, not common cold. It is not likely that skin boil kills you, but the complication - staph sepsis, can. I don't disagree with you at any medical point here, really.
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 16:07

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