A state of illness that never ends
These days, the background music to my life is a chorus of coughs and sneezes. At work, co-workers complain of a scratchy throat and put sick emojis next to their names on Slack. At home, my daughter comes home from daycare with a backpack full of construction paper crafts, and more often than not, she has a runny nose.
No matter how much my husband and I wash our hands — and hers — the germs are inevitably transferred to our baby, and then to us. Sometimes it feels like there’s barely a break before another illness strikes.
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Whether you have children or not, you may feel as if you’re stuck in a never-ending cycle of illness this time of year. Especially since the onset of the pandemic, it may seem as if you and your family are getting sick more often, that your colds are more severe and your coughs last longer.
It’s somewhat simple arithmetic — the coronavirus now adds to the infectious diseases that already spread every viral season, said Dr. Nahid Badelia, founding director of Boston University’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research. In addition to influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), or respiratory syncytial virus, there are more than 200 viruses that cause cold-like symptoms, including enteroviruses, rhinoviruses, parainfluenza viruses, and common coronaviruses that are cousins of the virus that causes COVID-19.
As far as experts can tell, these viruses have not changed to become more dangerous. One reason we feel more powerful now is because our bodies have forgotten how to fight it, Padilla said.
The precautions we all took to reduce transmission of the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic also slowed the spread of these other viruses, Padilla said.
So when people started throwing off their masks and socializing more, they were exposed to a variety of diseases again.
Last year, cases of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and Covid rose together in a triple epidemic. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that cases of strep throat were on the rise. Norovirus, which can cause fever and vomiting, also returns with the old common cold.
Unfortunately, immunity to many viruses that make people sick doesn’t last long, said Dr. Louis Ostrosky, chief of the division of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann. This means that your body has some kind of immune debt to catch up on. “If your immunity goes back to the strains that were circulating three or four years ago, you’ll need to return the favor,” Ostrosky said.
Once your body relearns how to make antibodies against a particular virus, you’ll likely experience milder symptoms and recover faster if you’re exposed again, Ostrosky said.
The coronavirus has also made us more attuned to the disease, experts said. It seems like a bigger problem now when someone comes to work or school with a bad cough. “Before coronavirus, you would blow your nose and complain a little bit, but you weren’t talking about it as much,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Paying close attention to respiratory symptoms may make it seem like we’re sick longer, said Dr. Debra Langlois, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. But a 2013 review of common respiratory infections in children found that the time it takes to cure an illness has always been staggering: It can take 15 days to clear up a cold, and 25 days for a cough to go away in most cases.
Adults can also experience what doctors call a post-viral cough, which lasts for three weeks or more after other symptoms have disappeared. “My husband has had a post-virus cough for weeks,” Langlois said.
In some cases, you can develop a secondary infection in your sinuses, ears, or throat, making it seem as if one illness is spreading to another. “It really stinks to get sick again,” Langlois said. “But what really reassures us as doctors is that even if you have a break for a day or two or a week, that means it is a separate virus.”
There are also steps that can limit at least some infections, such as getting vaccinated against RSV if you’re eligible, Langlois said; Ensuring you are up to date on flu and COVID vaccines; And apply other lessons from the pandemic, such as staying home when you’re sick and wearing a mask on planes.
For parents like me, whose young children carry every kind of germs imaginable, Langlois said there’s reason to hope we won’t continue to get sick more often: As kids get older, they’re less likely to develop coughs and facial coughs. They are more likely to wash their hands without a fight.
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