There’s a downside to returning to pre-COVID-19 hygiene habits — colds and sore throats are back, doctors say

Many things Americans gave up over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic are coming back, from parties and meals out to hugs and movies. Normalcy also has a downside — the return of colds, sore throats and the sniffles

“People are taking off their masks, they’re no longer socially distancing, they’re not washing their hands as much and they’re getting sick again,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, CEO of Mount Sinai hospital in South Nassau, New York.

Getting back to normal “comes at a price,” said Glatt, who is also a fellow with the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

After a year of almost no colds, no runny noses and no watery eyes, the minor viruses kept in control by COVID-19 restrictions are making a comeback.

Of most importance was influenza, which was at an all-time low this year. The flu season ends in April or May, so it’s not likely to rear up during the summer. But other annoying, though less dangerous viruses, are still out there.

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Not having to deal with commonplace colds and viruses has made this “a remarkable year,” said Dr. Clifford Medina, chief of general medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami.

In Atlanta, Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and the medical editor of Healthy Children magazine, is seeing an uptick in colds, RSV, rotavirus (which causes vomiting and diarrhea) and strep throat.

“We haven’t had a case of COVID (among our patients) since March 12, but we’re seeing all kinds of run-of-the-mill viruses,” she said. “It’s not more than normal. It’s just a stark contrast from seeing nothing for a year except COVID.”

Common cold, RSV cases on the rise

While not the death threat of COVID, such illnesses still exact a toll on people and society.

“From a public health standpoint, cold and viruses account for a tremendous amount of people not feeling well, missing school, missing work,” said Medina.

On average, adults get two to three colds a year while children get five to seven, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each lasts between five and seven days.

After a year of almost no colds, no runny noses and no watery eyes, the minor viruses kept in control by COVID-19 restrictions are making a comeback.

Colds account for 40% of all time lost from jobs and 30% of school absences and, by one estimate, resulted in an economic cost of lost productivity of more than $25 billion, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

After 15 months of lows, rates of these vexing viruses are climbing.

Cases of regular coronavirus, which causes the common cold, are up, as are human metapneumovirus, which causes cough, fever, nasal congestion and shortness of breath.

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After hovering below 5% for a year, tests for the common respiratory virus RSV are now approaching 20% positive, according to the CDC, which tracks general viruses via the National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System.

That’s not a surprise to Dr. Tuhina Joseph, pediatric infectious disease attending, at Tufts University School of Medicine.

“Some cold viruses are a little hardier than COVID-19, they last longer on surfaces,” she said. Not being careful about hand-washing or touching the face with hands means they have more chance of jumping to new hosts, he said.

‘Stay home when you’re sick’

Americans may want to put COVID-19 behind them, but the practices put into place during the worst of the pandemic could keep us all healthier, doctors say.

“So many people I know say they’re never going to shake hands with anybody ever again,” said Shu.

The level of colds coming out of schools and daycare may go down because hygiene is now top-of-mind for everyone.

“They’re cleaning surfaces a lot more than they used to and a lot of places have new ventilation systems, which are also great for keeping viruses down,” she said.

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Going forward, Americans would do well to continue practicing the things learned during COVID-19. That doesn’t mean washing down groceries, or never seeing friends or loved ones. But a little care makes a big difference, experts say.

“Stay home when you get sick. Do a good job when washing your hands. Physically distance if you’re indoors where you think you might be around sick people,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer,a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Medicine in Los Angeles.

“These are things that will keep you and your family healthier,” he said.

In South San Francisco, Mary Murphy said she welcomes a return to a more normal existence, but after more than 14 months without a single cold, sore throat or flu symptom in her house, she’s not going back to her old ways.

From now on, she said, “Our family will always travel with a mask and hand-sanitizing wipes in our cars and we will be more cognizant of germ-infested areas like ATM keypads and shopping cart handles.”

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