How Did The Pandemic Change The Cold And Flu Season?

With some slight variations, the cold and flu season typically occurs during the cold seasons. This is because the viruses responsible for cold and flu are stronger in the winter and our bodies are weaker. The cold and flu viruses thrive and also spread faster when the air is cold and dry. Based on research studies, cold temperatures suppress the immune system, thus increasing the risk of infections and can also worsen other conditions, such as heart diseases.

The flu season in the US

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza viruses responsible for flu circulate during the entire year, but the flu season occurs during fall and winter, with a peak between December and February. There are a few websites that track flu activity all year round such as FluView or provide weekly reports like FluView Interactive

woman with flu

The common cold season in the US

While most people tend to get colds in the winter and spring, some may get them in the fall and even summer, too. The average adult gets 2-3 colds per year, and children even more frequently, as per CDC. The common cold usually causes milder symptoms than the flu and lasts about 7 days. Those with a weakened immune system and chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are more likely to have more serious symptoms or complications.

How the pandemic changed the typical cold and flu season

Records indicated that colds and flu were at an all-time low during the COVID pandemic in 2020. There were some cases, but the 2019-2020 flu season for example affected earlier the Northern Hemisphere. Researchers have some explanations for this phenomenon. The restrictions in place may have played a role in the spread of these infections, particularly the travels. The international flights had been dramatically reduced, and this is how many viruses are transmitted from one area throughout the entire world. Many people may have not sought medical attention, and rather manage the cold and flu at home. The low flu season may have led to the eradication of less common strains of influenza. 

There were also abrupt declines in other viruses such as a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a very common virus that typically affects young children. Rhinoviruses, which are a major cause of common cold, especially in children-also showed a significant decline in some countries during 2020 and 2021.

During this cold and flu season, the health experts are uncertain, but there is a possibility that the cold and flu season may be worse. Normally, scientists look at what happened in the Southern Hemisphere where cold and flu peak in the summer. However, many of these countries continued to have string restrictions throughout the year 2021. This means is hard to predict what will happen in North America and other countries in the Northern Hemisphere. 

For parents: When should you contact the pediatrician? 

Is it a cold, flu, COVID, or something else?

For many children, starting the new school year is exciting. Yet, parents know that it can be challenging, especially this year. Children are spending time with their classmates, and coming down with a runny nose, cough and other symptoms is quite common. Is it a cold, the flu, COVID, bronchitis, strep throat, or another infection?  Pediatricians warn that for the 2021-2022 season, there is a rise in infections with the respiratory syncytial virus ( or RSV) in the US, which causes cold-like symptoms. In the case of the flu, symptoms do not develop until 1-4 days after an infection, and in the case of COVID, symptoms aren’t experienced until day 5 of the infection. Many children get these infections and have very mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all, while others can get severe forms. 

Parents need to evaluate the symptoms. If the children do not look very sick, keep them home, isolate them if possible from other members of the family and contact the pediatrician. They may be advised to get tested for COVID-19. There are also tests available for the flu. Medical advice and treatment should be sought right away if there is high fever, vomiting, chills and shakes, difficulty breathing and severe cough, coughing up mucus,  or extreme fatigue.  Children with asthma, diabetes or other chronic conditions are at increased risk to develop complications from these respiratory infections.

It is important for adults and children alike to take special precautions during the cold and flu season. Stay home if you have symptoms and get medical advice if the condition is getting worse. In addition to vaccines and regular medicines, consider vitamin D supplements.  Vitamin D is emerging as a key player related to a weakened immune system during the cold seasons. The immune system’s health requires healthy vitamin D levels, and a  deficiency in this nutrient is the most severe in the winter.  More and more doctors recommend supplementation with this nutrient at all ages during the cold and flu season. 

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