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Flu stages an unwelcome comeback

LaRanda St. John's 6-week-old son, Beau, lied in a hospital bed at the Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Matoon, Ill. in June. Beau developed a bad cough after his dedication ceremony at church. St. John, who has a medical background, suspected respiratory syncytial virus when she opened his sleeper and saw his chest heaving with labored breathing.
LaRanda St. John's 6-week-old son, Beau, lied in a hospital bed at the Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Matoon, Ill. in June. Beau developed a bad cough after his dedication ceremony at church. St. John, who has a medical background, suspected respiratory syncytial virus when she opened his sleeper and saw his chest heaving with labored breathing.LaRanda St. John/Associated Press

Yes, the summer cold and cough season really is worse than usual.

“I’ve had bad colds, but I’ve never experienced a virus like this,” said Holly Riddel, 55, an entrepreneur in Redondo Beach, Calif., who has been suffering from congestion, clogged ears, and a raspy throat for about two weeks. “I want this gone.”

Months of pandemic restrictions aimed at COVID-19 had the unintended but welcome effect of stopping flu, cold, and other viruses from spreading. But now that masks are off and social gatherings, hugs, and handshakes are back, the run-of-the-mill viruses that cause drippy noses, stuffy heads, coughs, and sneezes have also returned with a vengeance.

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“It was a bad chest cold — chest congestion, a rattling cough,” said Laura Wehrman, 52, a wardrobe supervisor for film and television, who caught a weeklong bug after flying to New York from Austin, Texas, in late June to visit friends. Although she is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, she took multiple tests to be sure she was not infected. Eventually a doctor confirmed it was a rhinovirus, a common cold virus. She said several of her other friends also have been sick with colds and coughs as well.

“I was staying with one of my best friends, and it got tense for a minute because she had started a new job, and she didn’t want to be sick,” Wehrman said. “I actually went and checked into a hotel for the last two days so I could just cough away by myself.”

Infectious disease experts say there are a number of factors fueling this hot, sneezy summer. While pandemic lockdowns protected many people from COVID-19, our immune systems missed the daily workout of being exposed to a multitude of microbes back when we commuted on subways, spent time at the office, gathered with friends, and sent children to day care and school.

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Although your immune system is likely as strong as it always was, if it has not been alerted to a microbial intruder in a while, it may take a bit longer to get revved up when challenged by a pathogen again, experts say. And while some viral exposures in our past have conferred lasting immunity, other illnesses may have given us only transient immunity that waned as we were isolating at home.

“Frequent exposure to various pathogens primes or jazzes up the immune system to be ready to respond to that pathogen,” said Dr. Paul Skolnik, an immunovirologist and chair of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “If you’ve not had those exposures, your immune system may be a little slower to respond or doesn’t respond as fully, leading to greater susceptibility to some respiratory infections and sometimes longer or more protracted symptoms.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that cases of common respiratory viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human parainfluenza viruses, which cause typical cold and flu symptoms, are on the rise. The spike in RSV, which can be especially risky to the very young and very old, is particularly unusual for this time of year, said a spokesperson at the CDC, which plans to release a report this week about the pandemic’s effect on a variety of respiratory viruses. The surge in RSV was most notable in several southern states, but the virus has begun to crop up all over the country. Its spread has been tracked primarily in young children, some of whom have been hospitalized with severe symptoms.

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The RSV surge, which has been seen in Europe, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand as well, is likely the result of pandemic lockdowns, which created a much larger population of susceptible young children. A cohort of babies, now toddlers, were largely protected from the virus when few of us were out and about. Since then, a new group of infants has been born — giving the virus the opportunity to infect roughly twice as many vulnerable children and creating more vectors to spread it to older children and adults, who typically have milder symptoms.

Dr. Sue Huang, director of the World Health Organization’s National Influenza Centre at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, New Zealand, said the country’s strict restrictions not only stopped COVID-19 but also wiped out RSV and influenza as well, a finding Huang and colleagues published in the journal Nature in February.

But as the country opened its borders to Australia, cases of RSV spiked in a matter of weeks, as the virus preyed on a larger-than-usual group of susceptible children, many of whom were admitted to hospitals.

“I haven’t seen anything like this in 20 years of working as a virologist,” Huang said.

Dr. Satya Dandekar, an expert in viral infections and mucosal immunology, said that while isolation measures did not weaken our immune system, other factors, including stress, poor sleep habits, and increased alcohol consumption, could play a role in how an individual immune system responds to a respiratory virus.

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Dr. Allison Agwu, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, said that even though many pandemic restrictions have been loosened, people should be mindful about taking precautions to prevent the spread of all respiratory illnesses.

“Do the things we tell fifth graders: Wash your hands, cover your sneeze, get rest, all those things,” Agwu said. “And do your best to get vaccinated against the things you can. Get your COVID vaccine so you’re less paranoid when you get a cold.”