It’s a common complaint: After coming down with a respiratory illness, symptoms such as a cough or runny nose linger for weeks, despite other symptoms going away. Alternately, they recover completely, but see their symptoms re-emerge a week or two later.
In fact, even doctors say this course of events isn’t unusual. Some research, however, suggests that this phenomenon might be more pronounced this year than usual.
COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are all circulating widely, as is common during the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. As of December 16, flu hospitalizations are up almost 200% over the previous four weeks. Meanwhile, Covid hospitalizations increased by around 40% over the four-week period ending Dec. 9, the latest data available.
Experts are weighing in on why cold and flu symptoms are dragging out more than ever this winter season.
For one, experts believe many people are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses this winter because they haven’t had a recent infection. Thus, we’re sort of paying the wages for a few years of good health and lower rates of infection. Others may have gotten back-to-back infections that they confused with lingering symptoms.
It’s also likely that following the pandemic — when many common viruses weren’t circulating widely because of the lockdowns and other aspects of COVIDmania — some people simply forgot how long symptoms can linger after a standard respiratory illness.
In fact, a two or more-week recovery period for common colds and similar is what is generally to be expected.
The phenomenon of people being exposed because they haven’t recently been sick is known as “immunity debt.” And while masking and isolation did little to slow the spread of COVID-19, there is some evidence that it might have slowed infections of the common cold and similar winter respiratory viruses.
What’s more, vaccinations are down, perhaps because people were made skeptical or fearful of vaccines due to the controversy surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine.
In raw numbers, RSV vaccines have been approved for older adults and pregnant people, but just 17% of those ages 60 and older had gotten an RSV shot as of Dec. 9. Meanwhile, the CDC reported a supply shortage for a newly approved RSV antibody injection for infants in October. However, additional doses became available last month, and 230,000 more are expected in January.
The flu vaccination rate so far this year is 42% for adults and 43% for children, compared with 47% and 57%, respectively, in the previous season. Just 18% of adults and 8% of eligible children have received the newest Covid vaccine.
What’s more, since this is only the second year with Covid, flu, and RSV circulating widely at once, there may simply be more opportunities to get sick than in previous winters, doctors said. That could raise the chance of back-to-back infections.
It’s also possible to get more than one virus at a time. So you might see one illness fade while another hangs around or becomes more prominent.
In fact, several doctors said they’re seeing an increase in bacterial infections — such as strep throat, whooping cough, or pneumonia — that either follow a viral illness or occur at the same time.
So don’t be too concerned if your symptoms linger. It might not be the same disease, or it might be the normal outcome of the infection. Keep an eye on your symptoms and report to a doctor when they become serious, but for the most part, the only “cure” for these types of infections is rest, fluids, and time.