Sneezy summer? Why some of us are getting colds

Common colds are back with a vengeance this summer, especially for little kids

Maija Kappler 4 minute read July 27, 2021
summer cold covid

Our immune systems are a little bit rusty. Getty

Of all the things we’ve missed over the last year and a half — parties, graduations, indoor dining — colds were nowhere near the top of the list.

But now, as people return to restaurants, stores and offices, the common cold is back in a major way. For most people, this is more annoying than anything else — but so many kids are getting sick that it could strain hospital resources, Canadian doctors havesaid.

Why colds are back
Like so many other weird things going on right now, the pandemic is the main culprit.

Many people who typically get colds in the winter have stayed healthy over the last year and a half precisely because of all of the precautions we took against COVID. When you’re staying at home, avoiding crowded places and wearing a mask everywhere, you’re a lot less likely to get sick.

But it’s also meant the immune system is little out of practice at its main job: developing antibodies that protect us from invaders.

“Frequent exposure to various pathogens primes or jazzes up the immune system to be ready to respond to that pathogen,”  Dr. Paul Skolnik, an immunovirologist and chair of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, told The New York Times. “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.”

This doesn’t mean our immune systems have been ruined by pandemic lockdown.

Dr. Pascal Lavoie of the B.C. Children’s Hospital told The Canadian Press, “There’s no weakening of the immune system from not being in contact with viruses.” It just means our systems are a little rusty. Hence, higher levels of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a contagious infection of the respiratory tract that typically presents as a cold and that, in non-pandemic times, is extremely common, especially from November to January.

What that lack of immunity means for infants
Lavoie was one of several medical experts at the B.C. Children’s Hospital who wrote a letter published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal warning of a likely spike in RSV cases in young children, who generally have more severe symptoms than adults. Usually, kids are exposed to the virus during the first two years of their lives and are able to build up immunity. But because RSV infections were so rare over the last year and a half, young children who would normally be exposed , as well as babies born since the pandemic started, may not have successfully become immune.

“We have two whole birth cohorts that wouldn’t have been infected," Dr. Lindy Samson, chief of staff and chief medical officer at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, told the Ottawa Citizen. She added that she’s been seeing a huge increase in the number of kids who came in for COVID-19 tests. Most didn’t have COVID, but respiratory viruses similar to RSV.

In Australia, the median age of children with RSV was 18.4 months — significantly older than 7.3 and 12.4, the previous years’ numbers.

“This could suggest that infants who were not exposed to RSV in their first year did not develop sufficient immunity, such that they remained susceptible into their second year,” the CMAJ letter said.

But Lavoie stressed that this isn’t a significant problem for the majority of young children: “For most healthy-term babies, it’s just a cold for them,” he said. It’s most worrying for babies born very prematurely, or with heart or lung conditions.

How to avoid a cold
The advice for strengthening our immune systems is all pretty standars, basic stuff: get enough exercise, eat nutritious foods, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much.

Similarly, the exact same things we’ve been doing to avoid transmission of COVID are helpful against colds: thorough hand-washing, sneezing or coughing into the elbow rather than the hand, no sharing of food or drinks, wearing masks while indoors.

“Do the things we tell fifth graders: Wash your hands, cover your sneeze, get rest, all those things,” Allison Agwu, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, told the New York Times. “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.”


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