- This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: March 31, 2021
With people taking serious precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19, such as social distancing and wearing masks, it stands to reason that this year’s cold and flu season would also be suppressed. However, as with most things pertaining to the coronavirus and other respiratory ailments, it’s not quite as straightforward as you might think. The question of “Are people still getting colds” isn’t necessarily an easy one to answer.
Medical experts still recommended getting the flu shot in 2020—if for no other reason than to avoid a so-called “twindemic”—and early data suggests we may see fewer influenza cases this flu season. It typically hits the Southern Hemisphere in May or June, but data from Australia points to pandemic restrictions having pushed many non-flu viruses out of circulation this year.
Researchers tracking the transmission of respiratory viruses in New York, Washington, and Texas believe that the United States could be primed for a similar trend. But while Australia and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere may have essentially skipped flu season—pathogens that cause the common cold known as “rhinoviruses” still managed to thrive in these areas during pandemic times.
Pedro Piedra, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine, told Scientific American that he has actually seen a noticeable uptick in rhinoviruses this fall, even as there has been a significant decrease in other common respiratory viruses.
As far as how many cases of the common cold have been reported, that’s also a tricky question to answer.
Dr. Prentiss Taylor, a physician and the vice president of medical affairs for the telemedicine company Doctor on Demand, said that more than 80,000 people with COVID-19 symptoms have used the service since the beginning of the pandemic. But of those potential cases, more than half were not referred for COVID-19 testing. In these instances, diagnoses suggested that some other respiratory affliction was more likely.
People are still getting the common cold because it spreads easier than the coronavirus or flu
There is no single, clear-cut answer to why the viruses such as the common cold and norovirus spread and transmit more fluently than the flu or coronavirus. Instead, there are a number of factors that explain why it’s so difficult to avoid catching one.
First and foremost, there are nearly 200 different pathogens that cause the common cold. These include four types of coronaviruses, four parainfluenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, and 160 different rhinoviruses. And according to viral censuses, dozens of these rhinoviruses can circulate in any one place at a given time.
“You might be immune to the flu, but you are not going to be immune to all those rhinoviruses,” James Gern, a rhinovirus researcher at the University of Wisconsin, told Scientific American. “That’s one unique feature of rhinoviruses—you are always going to be susceptible to some.”
Pathogens that cause the common cold also tend to be more primitive and heartier than the flu or coronavirus. The latter two viruses have evolved a fatty “lipid” membrane envelope which encloses and cloaks the pathogens from our immune system’s antibodies, thereby allowing the virus to infect cells undetected. However, these viruses are also more susceptible to exposure from the elements and are transmitted primarily by airborne exposure.
Rhinoviruses never evolved to the point of developing this envelope, but they also tend to be overall more resilient. This is why they may last longer on fingertips and surfaces and show resistance to hand sanitizers and other disinfectants.
There’s also research showing that rhinoviruses could combat COVID because the common cold overtakes the coronavirus.
Yet another reason for the endurance of the common cold is also to blame for many COVID-19 outbreaks. Asymptomatic carriers may be responsible for transmission in many cases—though exactly how many is unclear. Children, in particular, are notorious for carrying pathogens without exhibiting symptoms, and at least one study has detected rhinoviruses in one-third of asymptomatic children.
This should not come as a huge surprise to many parents, as young children tend to be human “petri dishes” because of their tendencies to touch their eyes, noses, and face. As such, children can quickly contaminate their home and other members of their households with a number of strains of viruses and bacteria.
But perhaps, the biggest explanation for the persistence of the common cold during the pandemic, according to many experts, is that people simply aren’t being as careful as they think they are. So yes, people are still getting colds, and yes, you can blame those same people. “If cold viruses are still spreading, that means we are still having person-to-person contact,” Gern said.
Said Dr. Rachel Scheraga, via the Cleveland Clinic, “We haven’t seen a lot of flu, but many of us are still occasionally doing essential tasks despite the pandemic, whether it’s going to the store, work, or sending our kids to school.”
In Hong Kong, researchers found that even though schools were closed for much of 2020, kids began getting colds again when they returned despite the fact they wore masks. As noted by Stat News, “Researchers believe the surge in illness was no accident—but rather a consequence of children congregating after so many months of social distancing. In short, they may have been more susceptible to respiratory viruses because they likely had fewer exposures to people outside their households and thus fewer chances to contract them and build up immunity.”
As Dr. Benjamin Cowling, one of the authors of the study from Hong Kong, told the New York Times, “It did seem like there were an unusual number of children in hospital with rhinoviruses.”
And if colds are still spreading through person-to-person contact, then so too can COVID-19 (and if you’ve had the COVID vaccine and you still catch the coronavirus, it might like you have a bit of a cold). It’s led others to wonder if masking will continue to be more of a long-term trend so people can avoid getting colds more often.
As we head into the long winter with new variants of the virus spreading, this is only an added reason for people to not let their guard down and to continue to keep up due diligence with pandemic restricting measures.