This is a common symptom this winter. After contracting a respiratory illness, some people find that they have a persistent cough or runny nose, even though other symptoms have subsided. Or, even if he starts to recover, his symptoms return after a week or two.
Doctors say this process is not uncommon, but could be more pronounced this year.
The novel coronavirus, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are all widespread. As of Dec. 16, the number of hospitalizations due to influenza had increased nearly 200% over the past four weeks. And the number of people hospitalized with coronavirus infections rose by about 40% in the four weeks to December 9, according to the latest data available.
NBC News spoke to seven doctors in seven states about why some people’s symptoms persist for weeks or months. They offered several possible explanations.
For one, many people have not had a recent infection or vaccination, making them more susceptible to respiratory illnesses this winter, experts say. Some people may confuse it with repeated infections and lingering symptoms.
It’s also possible that after the pandemic, when many common viruses were not widely circulating, some people simply forgot how long symptoms last after a standard respiratory illness.
“Full recovery could take more than two weeks,” said South Carolina state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell.
There is a possibility that “excusable debt” is widespread among people.
Some people have not been infected with influenza or RSV as much as they should in recent years because masks and isolation slowed the spread of many viruses during the pandemic. This can create what doctors call “immune debt,” a condition in which your immune system is weakened and you become more susceptible to infections.
“Because many people are encountering viruses that we haven’t seen in recent years, some of them are a little more severe and you may feel like you’re having more severe symptoms than you were before,” Molly says.・Dr. Freese said. , a hospital epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Doctors say the lack of protection from vaccines could make people more susceptible to severe illness and harder to recover.
RSV vaccines have been approved for older adults and pregnant people, but as of December 9, only 17% of people over 60 had received RSV vaccination. Meanwhile, the CDC reported a shortage in the newly approved RSV antibody shot for infants. During October. However, additional vaccinations became available last month, making it possible for an additional 230,000 people to be vaccinated. scheduled for January.
So far this year, influenza vaccination rates have been 47% and 57% for children, compared to 42% for adults and 43% for children. previous season. Only 18% of adults and 8% of eligible children have received the latest coronavirus vaccine.
Last year, doctors said people should wear masks and social distance. was even more common.
“That may be why people are getting sick more now,” says Dr. Caroline Goldzweig, chief medical officer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Foundation in Los Angeles.
Two infections in quick succession
Doctors said this is only the second year that the coronavirus, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus have been widely circulating at once, so people may simply have more opportunities to get sick than in previous winters. .
Dr. Larissa Pizney, an infectious disease expert at UCHealth in Aurora, Colorado, said, “For the past few years, we’ve seen a peak primarily in novel coronaviruses, or primarily respiratory syncytial virus, but now we’re seeing multiple respiratory viruses. are all increasing at the same time.”
If this happens, the possibility of continuous infection may increase.
“There’s a good chance you’ll be exposed to multiple different viruses over the winter and develop several respiratory infections,” said Dr. Daniel Ouellette, a lung disease specialist at Henry Ford Health in Detroit. .
It’s also possible to be infected with multiple viruses at once, but the CDC isn’t often aware of that happening, said director Dr. Mandy Cohen.
“We see co-infections at about the same level as this time last season,” Cohen said.
However, some doctors said they are seeing an increase in bacterial infections such as strep throat, whooping cough and pneumonia, which follow or occur simultaneously with viral illnesses.
“In some circumstances, having a viral respiratory illness increases the risk of bacterial pneumonia. This has been classically seen for a long time with influenza, but has since been shown to be similar with coronavirus. “We saw a little bit of that,” he said. Shivanjali Shankaran, an infectious disease physician at Rush University Medical Group in Chicago.
It is normal for symptoms to linger or come back
Dr. Donald Yealy, chief medical officer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said if symptoms go away and then come back, they could be part of the same viral infection.
“You can have an initial infection and your symptoms start to get better, but then you can have a flare-up. In other words, your symptoms come back while you’re recovering,” he says. “People may mistake it for two separate infections.”
Doctors say it’s common to feel sick for several weeks. And COVID-19, influenza, and RSV can all cause a post-viral cough.
“Coughing after a viral infection does not necessarily mean that the person can still spread the infection to others. It is just an aftereffect of a previous infection,” Freese said.
However, a small number of people may not recover for months or even years.The long-term effects of the new coronavirus are affecting those around us. 6% of US adults, according to a June survey by the Census Bureau. Similarly, the effects of the flu or cold can last longer.
a Research published last week We showed that influenza can cause persistent cough and shortness of breath for at least 18 months.and analysis A study of British adults published in October found that cold viruses can still cause coughs, abdominal pain and diarrhea more than a month after initial infection. Scientists are still trying to figure out why.