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Things We Saw Today: You’re Not Imagining It, Everyone Really Does Have the Worst Cold Ever Right Now

A sick woman lies in bed with tissues

I first saw the chatter about terrible colds on Instagram and Twitter—anecdotes shared from local friends and folks I follow in far-flung locales, everyone complaining of an awful respiratory ailment. It’s such an egregious summer sickness that some people are taking COVID-19 tests to make sure they don’t have the coronavirus. Since breakthrough infections are happening with the Delta variant even amongst the fully vaccinated, testing is never a bad idea.

But most in this demonic cold boat seem to be reporting negative COVID tests and a diagnosis of a regular old-hat virus that’s knocked them flat. Now the New York Times is on the case with an article titled “Why Everyone Has the Worst Summer Cold Ever.” The Times spoke with infectious disease experts to discover why the colds happening now are so, well, virulent.

It turns out the fierce bite of these common viruses is related to the pandemic, in that it’s the easing of health safety restrictions and the relative insulation our immune systems had this past year that’s combining as a one-two punch that’s getting people extra sick.

Throughout lockdowns, times of strict mask mandates, and remote working, many people noticed that this was one of the first cold and flu seasons that they suffered nary a sniffle. Pandemic restrictions “had the unintended but welcome effect of stopping flu, cold and other viruses from spreading,” according to the Times.

While this was a great side-effect, now that masks have come off in many places and offices and restaurants are often bustling again, our bodies are in a state where they “missed the daily workout of being exposed to a multitude of microbes” that we would have normally experienced via commuting, socializing, daycare, and other activities. So when we get sick now, it’s hitting us much harder than it would have if we’d gone through the typical microbial workout of pre-pandemic daily life.

Although your immune system is likely as strong as it always was, if it hasn’t 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.”

Common respiratory viruses are on the rise right now, which is rarer for the summer months. While some people are experiencing brutal colds but will be okay after some days of misery, these viruses can still be quite dangerous, especially for seniors and children. COVID-19 testing and treatment remain vital, but a negative test isn’t cause to be complacent if another respiratory illness is at play here.

Our immune systems are also less able to handle common ailments because we’ve gone through a wringer of stress, and factors like “poor sleep habits and increased alcohol consumption” can also play a role in how hard a virus hits.

So, what should we do? Well, the first and best thing is to be vaccinated, to vastly decrease the chances that that horrible cold is COVID-19 and that you could be spreading it to others. Then, all of the hygienic practices people adhered to this year remain important. Wash your hands frequently and often. Maintain space in crowded areas. Don’t go see your friends and neighbors when you’re feeling under the weather.

Personally, I’m back to wearing a mask in all indoor spaces again with the rise of the Delta variant and because I want to also avoid this nightmare cold at all costs. Did you get hit by it?

(via The New York Times, image: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels)

Here are some other sights & sites we saw today:

  • Speaking of vaccines, Alabama’s Republican Governor Kay Ivey said “it’s time to start blaming unvaccinated folks” as the pandemic worsens in areas with low vaccination rates. (Like Alabama.) Maybe she should blame her political party for a year and a half of misinformation about COVID-19 and encouraging vaccine skepticism. (via Politico)
  • “Why Queerbaiting Matters More Than Ever” (via Rolling Stone)
  • “The Evolution of the Asian Heroine in Hollywood” (via Nerdist)
  • Thirteen Reasons Why actor Tommy Dorfman has told Time Magazine that she is a trans woman and her pronouns are she/her. (via The Guardian)
  • M. Night Shyamalan’s SFF films, ranked. (via io9)
  • Pajiba calls the movie Snake Eyes “drab” and “tiring.” (via Pajiba)
  • A deep dive into Star Trek’s “most infamous one-shot character,” Tuvix. (via Polygon)

Rejoice, for the weekend is upon us! What did you see today?

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.