IIt may have been one of the hottest summers on record, but the hot weather hasn’t stopped 35-year-old Lorraine Davies and her family from catching all the viruses. “Since the spring, I feel like our whole family has been constantly sick,” she says. “I’ve had at least four viruses in the past few months. As a busy mom, I just had to try to keep going. There were days when I put the kids to bed and then fell asleep because I was so tired.
It is not the first time that they have been hit by a wave of summer viruses since the start of the pandemic. Last year, her youngest child ended up in the emergency room 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 oldest children returned to school after the Easter holidays and the youngest returned to his nanny. Davies runs a part-time freelance coaching business and the disruption has had a major impact on his work. Constant illnesses also prevented the family from practicing hobbies and socializing. “I have friends and family who have had cancer treatment or are immunocompromised. You just don’t want to spread germs to people who might be vulnerable, so that’s a constant worry.
Davies isn’t the only one facing these challenges. Across the UK, surgeries and hospitals are seeing an influx of patients with typical winter illnesses including coughs, colds, croup, stomach bugs and chickenpox. Dr Hana Patel, a London-based GP and mental health coach who works in the NHS and in private practice, says young children are particularly affected. “During the lockdown, we came into contact with fewer germs and as a result the immune system didn’t have a chance to develop in some children,” she says. “This is the first summer where people are going back to normal routines and really mixing up again. Kids going to nursery tend to get a lot of bugs in their first year, especially in the winter. Due closures, we see that at another time of the year.
Dr Patel also continues to see large numbers of Covid cases, which can be difficult to distinguish from other respiratory viruses. Newer variants, she says, “cause slightly different symptoms and people suffer from them again and again.”
Zeinab Ardeshir, the founder of online home delivery service PillSorted, noticed that people were catching more colds and taking longer to recover. “I see much more acute prescriptions coming in than we normally do at this time of year,” she says. The majority are steroid inhalers, which can help people manage symptoms such as coughs and breathing problems, and antibiotics for those who develop a secondary infection. “We’ve had over 20 families over the past few weeks with complaints of headaches, sore throats, coughs and fevers that don’t go away as quickly as a virus usually would. They test negative for Covid but continue to feel unwell.
George Icke, 19, a student at Salford, had a summer cold last month. “It became debilitating because everything was so exhausting. I found it difficult to work and do normal daily activities – even cleaning became impossible. When he lost his voice, he had to call in sick for his freelance job as a radio host, which meant a loss of income. “The number of illnesses has definitely affected the companies I have worked for. Lots of people take time off. He fears the problem will get worse when he goes back to college and everyone gets the “undergraduate flu.” “It’s always bad, but this time people will arrive sick.”
According to Dr. Maroof Harghandiwal, functional medical specialist and Covid expert at Zen Healthcare, the human immune system is at its best when constantly exposed to stimuli. “Most of us have gone a year without coming into contact with common bacteria and viruses.” Now, when we encounter these insects, he says, “it may take a bit 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, “endless” bugs have plagued her family for months. “I caught everything, including bad colds. I feel like the second I get rid of something, I get something else,” she says. Despite being on maternity leave from her job at the bank and avoiding her usual public transport route, she has experienced a huge increase in viral infections compared to previous summers. She attributes it in part to not having had a chance to recover. “It was a really exhausting time,” she says. “When I’m bad, I still have to take care of the children. Due to Covid a lot of plans and events have been postponed and now we have had a lot going on so it feels like there is never time to stop.
Samaka has also noticed that she has been sick more often since she had Covid in January, and wonders about the impact of this first infection on her immune system. It’s a theory that has yet to be proven, but according to Harghandiwal, scientists are exploring the possibility. Early research has found abnormalities in immune cells may contribute to the long-running Covid, which is thought to affect more than 2million 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 getting recurrent infections. Now the same symptoms are caused by Covid, which is much more prevalent,” says Harghandiwal.
Cheshire GP Dr Chris Ritchieson has also noticed an increase in ‘winter’ ailments in the north of England. Although these illnesses can make healthy adults and older children very sick for a few days, they usually get better on their own. For babies, the elderly, and anyone with compromised immune systems, the risks are greater.
Social mixing is important for people separated during lockdown, but there are small steps everyone can take to reduce the risk of contracting and transmitting these viruses. “Wearing masks on public transport and in crowds has really helped reduce the spread of respiratory disease,” he says. “Meanwhile, handwashing 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 in getting rid of these germs. Many people do not wash their hands properly before eating or handling food.
Increasingly relaxed attitudes toward hygiene and common viruses aren’t just due to pandemic fatigue — they’ve been building for 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 are still seeing a small but significant number of children and vulnerable people hospitalized with respiratory viruses and vomiting. They are certainly always a concern.
People can unknowingly transmit a serious illness when they are not feeling well. “Pertussis and RSV, both of which can be very dangerous to babies, have been on the rise in 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 getting mixed up. If people have the option to work from home when they feel mildly unwell or take time off, it could help reduce the spread of disease and the risk to young and vulnerable people.