Amid a major, unprecedented health crisis, two things many of us didn’t worry about last year were getting the flu and the common cold — and we didn’t really have to. We were hand-sanitizing and masking up more than ever, and for the first time, many people who felt even the tiniest bit sick actually stayed home — they often didn't even have to cancel their plans, since they didn't have them to begin with. Anecdotally, it seemed like no one had a cold or the flu, and statistically, it was proven: In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that it only recorded 1,316 cases of the flu between September 2020 and January 2021, compared to nearly 130,000 confirmed cases during the same period the previous year. Now, as we start to shed our masks and return to crowded spaces, are colds coming back?
Although COVID-19 cases have decreased to a weekly average of 14,000 new diagnoses a day (compared to a peak of 300,000 a day), other illnesses — namely, rhinovirus infections, which typically cause colds — are back in full swing. “There has been an increased number of cases of that, and the most obvious reason for that would be people are interacting more and getting together,” says Abisola Olulade, MD, a San Diego-based physician. “It makes sense, the fact that people are going out and about again, kids are in school, they’re going to play dates.”
Dr. Olulade also cites an increase in travel as a reason we might see more and more colds going around. But, she adds, rhinoviruses are complex. As the Scientific American reported, we’ve seen fewer instances of some common respiratory viruses and the flu lately, but rhinoviruses continued to spread in the U.S., even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. This is partially because there are just so many different pathogens — around 200. “You might be immune to the flu, but you are not going to be immune to all those rhinoviruses,” James Gern, a University of Wisconsin-Madison rhinovirus researcher, told the Scientific American. “That’s one unique feature of rhinoviruses — you are always going to be susceptible to some.”
And it’s also because, as Dr. Olulade tells Refinery29, rhinoviruses are actually “heartier” than COVID or the flu. “[Rhinoviruses don’t] have what is called an outer envelope, an outer coating, so [they] may not be as susceptible to handwashing. They stay longer on surfaces,” she says. They might be able to bypass masks, too: Dr. Olulade points out that masks are proven to be effective in preventing COVID, but research shows that they don’t necessarily prevent colds.
So why, exactly, are we seeing a surge in colds right now? There are a few possibilities. Some researchers have said that children find themselves more susceptible to respiratory viruses because they’ve had fewer opportunities to socialize and build up immunity, reported STAT News in February. Also, now that nearly half of the U.S. is fully vaccinated and it’s finally nice enough to socialize outdoors in many places, people aren’t exactly social distancing. “The less we are interacting with others, that theoretically should have an impact on colds, and that might be something we want to think about,” says Dr. Olulade.
There isn’t much research on whether the kinds of safety measures we implemented in 2020 might ward off rhinoviruses. But we did learn one thing during the pandemic that we should keep in mind moving forward: Cold and flu-like symptoms can be serious, and even if your cold feels like no big deal, it can’t hurt to work from home or take a sick day (if you can) and avoid crowded places (again, if you can). It’s an easy way to keep yourself — and everyone around you — healthier.