Colds Nearly Vanished Under Lockdown. Now They’re Coming Back

By Gregory Barber

The question may seem odd in the midst of a global pandemic, but among people in places with serious mask-wearing and social-distancing measures, and with the luxury to hunker down, it is forgivable to wonder: Will I ever get sick again? In the southern hemisphere, in places like Australia and South Africa, winter flu season came and went without a trace. The western United States is coughing through clouds of smoke, and people everywhere have endured wet-eyed allergy seasons. But over the past 6 months, people were far less likely to get sick sick—at least from respiratory viruses that aren’t called SARS-CoV-2.

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But in some places, that’s started to change. Data from Australia and across Europe indicate a surge of at least one other ailment that has been lying mostly dormant: the common cold. Colds are caused by many viruses, but the culprits, at this point, are largely rhinoviruses. That isn’t especially surprising. Rhinoviruses are ubiquitous bugs that normally spread this time of year as schools and day care centers reopen, which in many places they have. “This is exactly what we’d expect during a normal back-to-school season,” says Catherine Moore, a virologist at Public Health Wales.

But this year isn’t exactly “normal.” What has surprised public health officials is to see the quick return of non-Covid respiratory viruses with social distancing and mask rules still in place. And this year, their return has presented a unique headache for a simple reason: Early symptoms of colds and Covid-19 are virtually indistinguishable.

That has added a new wrinkle to Covid-19 testing. In Britain, where Covid-19 cases are surging amidst a severe shortage of tests, emergency department officials have taken to Twitter to plead with parents to stop bringing mildly ill children—whose symptoms often turn out to be caused by a rhinovirus—in for testing, often in the hopes that a negative Covid-19 test that will allow them to return to school. “Wheeze-tastic,” strapped pediatricians gripe on Twitter. Even in Australia, where Covid-19 cases are hovering near zero in most of the country, the return of other respiratory ailments has strained supplies and complicated efforts to fully quash SARS-CoV-2 by testing for the virus widely.

In some ways, the rise of rhinoviruses is a trial run for Covid-19 testing as more respiratory viruses get back into circulation. The reemergence of colds is less concerning than a surge in influenza that could come this winter. In addition to putting pressure on testing supplies, a bad flu season would tax the same ICU beds, personal protective equipment, and respiratory specialists that health officials hope to save for Covid-19. That could force people back into more strenuous lockdown measures to avoid overburdening the health care system. (Reminder, reader: Get your flu shot.)

Cold season, by contrast, usually exacts its toll quietly. Rhinoviruses are rarely dangerous to anyone but the most medically vulnerable. Their damage is mostly economic, coming in the form of sick days, when people are told to sit tight, drink some fluids, and wait the bug out. Tests are rarely necessary outside of hospitals or surveillance programs, when infections are spotted in a respiratory panel test. But those tests are more expensive and are typically only performed by clinicians after more serious ailments, like the flu, have been ruled out.

Symptoms do not completely overlap, Moore says. A runny nose without fever, for example, is more likely to be a cold, while a case involving a high fever is likely not. But that guidance can be hard to put into practice, especially with kids. “It is incredibly challenging, and I don’t blame anybody who has got a child who is coughing or a bit snotty wanting to get a test,” she says. Still, she says, with Covid-19 tests in short supply, the guidance in the United Kingdom is for the mildly ill to lie low. That’s the same message, she notes, that’s often given during severe flu seasons.