Colds, coughs, stomach bugs – why are so many of us getting “winter” illnesses this summer?

meIt may be one of the hottest summers on record, but the warm weather hasn’t stopped 35-year-old Lorraine Davies and her family from catching all the viruses. “Since the spring it seems like our whole family has been constantly unwell,” she says. “I’ve had at least four viruses in the last few months. As a busy mom, I’ve just had to try to keep going. There have been days where I’ve put the kids to bed and then I’ve fallen asleep because I’m so wrecked.”

It is not the first time they have been affected by a wave of summer viruses since the pandemic began. Last year, her youngest son ended up in A&E with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a cold-like bug that can cause serious illness in babies. “This summer we’ve all had colds, coughs, stomach bugs, as well as Covid. I don’t think we’ve ever been to the doctor so much.”

The illnesses started when the older children went back to school after the Easter holidays and their youngest went back to their nanny. Davies runs a part-time freelance coaching business and the disruption has had a major impact on his work. Constant illnesses have also prevented the family from enjoying hobbies and socializing. “I have friends and family who have gone through cancer treatment or are immunocompromised. You just don’t want to bring any germs to people who might be vulnerable, so it’s a constant concern.”

Davies is not alone in facing these challenges. Across the UK, GP surgeries and hospitals are seeing an influx of patients with typical winter ailments including coughs, colds, croup, stomach bugs and chicken pox. Dr Hana Patel, a London-based GP and mental health coach who works in the NHS and in private practice, says younger children are particularly affected. “During lockdown we came into contact with fewer germs and as a result the immune systems haven’t had a chance to develop in some children,” he says. “This is the first summer where people are back to normal routines and mingling again. Kindergarten kids tend to get a lot of bugs in their first year, especially in the winter. Because of the lockdowns , we see it at a different time of the year.”

Dr. Patel also continues to see a large number of Covid cases, which can be difficult to distinguish from other respiratory viruses. The new variants, he says, are “causing slightly different symptoms and people get it over and over again.”

Zeinab Ardeshir, the founder of online pharmacy home delivery service PillSorted, has noticed that people are getting more colds and taking longer to recover. “I’m seeing much sharper recipes than we normally do this time of year,” he says. Most are for steroid inhalers, which can help people control symptoms such as coughing and breathing problems, and antibiotics for those who develop a secondary infection. “We’ve had over 20 families in the last few weeks with complaints of headaches, sore throats, coughs and fevers that aren’t going away as quickly as a virus usually does. They’re testing negative for Covid, but they’re still bad”.

“Handwashing is important for the prevention of norovirus,” says Cheshire GP Chris Ritchieson. Photograph: Images by Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

George Icke, 19, a student from Salford, has been suffering from a cold for the past month. “It became debilitating because everything was so exhausting. It was hard for me to work and do normal day-to-day activities, even cleaning became impossible.” When he lost his voice, he had to call in sick to his freelance job as a radio announcer, resulting in lost income. “The amount of sickness has definitely been affecting the companies I’ve been working for. A lot of people are taking time off.” He worries that the problem will get worse when he goes back to college and everyone has the “first-timer flu.” “It’s always bad, but this time people are going to get sick.”

According to Dr. Maroof Harghandiwal, functional medicine specialist and Covid expert at Zen Healthcare, human immune systems are at their best when they are constantly exposed to stimuli. “Most of us went a year without coming into contact with any common bacteria and viruses.” Now, when we encounter these bugs, he says, “it may take a little longer” for our immune system to kick in. “Therefore, the infection lasts longer. People’s immune systems have also been affected by anxiety and stress.”

For Suzanne Samaka, 34, the “endless” errors have plagued her family for months. “I’ve had everything, including colds. It feels like the minute I get rid of something, I get something else,” she says. Despite being on maternity leave from her banking job and avoiding her usual public transport route, she has seen a considerable increase in viral infections compared to previous summers. He attributes that in part to not having had a chance to recover. “It’s been a very exhausting time,” he says. “When I’m poor I still have to take care of the children. Because of Covid, a lot of plans and events were postponed and we’ve had a lot going on now, so it seems like there’s never any time to stop.”

Samaka has also noticed that she is sick more often since she got Covid in January, and wonders about the impact of this first infection on her immune system. It’s a theory yet to be proven, but according to Harghandiwal, scientists are exploring the possibility. Early research has found that abnormalities in immune cells may be contributing to prolonged Covid, which is estimated to affect more than 2 million people in the UK. “Even in mild cases of the disease, changes in immune function can occur. We used to see people with chronic fatigue syndrome suffering from repeated infections. Now the same symptoms are caused by Covid, which is much more common,” says Harghandiwal .

Dr Chris Ritchieson, a GP in Cheshire, has also noticed a pattern of increased ‘winter’ illnesses in the north of England. Although these illnesses can make healthy adults and older children very unwell for a few days, they usually get better on their own. For infants, the elderly, and anyone who is immunocompromised, the risks are greater.

Social mixing is important for people staying apart during lockdown, but there are small steps everyone can take to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading these viruses. “Wearing masks on public transport and in crowds really helped reduce the spread of respiratory diseases,” he says. “Meanwhile, hand washing is important for norovirus prevention [winter vomiting bug]. Some stomach bugs are resistant to hand sanitizer, but a thorough wash with soap and warm water is very effective at getting rid of these germs. A lot of people don’t wash their hands properly before eating or handling food.”

Increasingly relaxed attitudes towards hygiene and common viruses are not just due to pandemic fatigue, but have developed over decades. “Before routine vaccination there were higher rates of scarier diseases and fewer treatments, so the public was more aware and perhaps took public health more seriously. However, we still see a small but significant number of children and people vulnerable people hospitalized with respiratory viruses and vomiting. They are certainly still a concern.”

People can unknowingly spread serious diseases when they are unwell. “Whooping cough and RSV, both of which can be very dangerous for babies, have been on the rise throughout the population for some time,” he says. “Because people don’t look for them and they often start with mild symptoms, they assume it’s a cold and keep mixing. If people have the option to work from home when they feel slightly unwell, or take time off, it could help reduce the spread of disease and the risk to the young and vulnerable.”

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