Before the pandemic, I was notorious for contracting bad colds — at the worst of times. At my senior prom, an unknown respiratory illness rendered me unable to speak, but for a few raspy words. The first year I lived in NYC and began riding the germy subway, I came down with multiple sinus infections.
I came to accept my fate as the girl with the perpetual cold. Then the pandemic hit. In lockdown, the precautions I was taking to stay COVID-free — dutifully slipping on my mask, bathing in hand sanitizer, avoiding contact with people and communal surfaces — protected me against all minor communicable illnesses. For more than a year, I didn’t fish out my reliable tub of NyQuil or suck on a single cough drop.
But one day in late June, I felt that once-familiar itch in the back of my throat. I groaned, downed several glasses of Emergen-C and hoped for health. Nevertheless, the itch morphed into a full-blown summer cold, complete with green snot, startling sneezes and a phlegmy cough that kept me up all night. I rushed to an urgent care center to get COVID test. Luckily, I wasn’t in the 0.003 percent of vaccinated people with severe COVID-19 breakthrough infections. I just had a frustratingly incurable cold that had to “run its course.”
As I sat in bed that weekend, blowing my nose and reeling from FOMO, my friend texted me that he was sick too. Soon enough, a lot of other people were complaining about colds — friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family members, comedians on Twitter. After the healthiest year of many people’s lives (for those of us lucky enough to avoid COVID), it suddenly seemed like everyone was sick. What was going on?
A common belief among my family and friends is that exposure to germs strengthens the immune system. By that logic, 16 months of social distancing and compulsive sanitizing would leave people unusually susceptible to infectious diseases. Apparently, this a huge misconception — at least for adults.
You’re born into the world with an “innate immune response,” which kicks into gear quickly to act as the first line of defense against invaders, immunologist Douglas Green says. Through immunizations and exposure to illnesses, you build up an “adaptive immune response.” This mechanism allows your immune system to remember viruses, bacteria and other pathogens you’ve come across already and protect you against reinfection, Green says. “Any time we are exposed to a new infection or vaccine, we generate an adaptive immune response.”
Your immune system’s strength is fully developed by the time you’re an adult. (That is, until you get older, and it starts to lose some of its might.) Our bodies have great memories; they don’t need constant re-exposure to germs to know how to get rid of them.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, offers a helpful comparison. “If you stop lifting weights for a while, your muscles will become slack, but there’s no evidence that that happens with your immune system,” he says. “So the notion that this coming respiratory season will be more severe because our immune systems have become relatively inactive is incorrect.”
If the lockdown hasn’t weakened our immune systems, what’s making us sick? The two experts I talked to said it’s likely a combination of two things: exposure and lifestyle choices.
Although the flu pretty much faded from existence this winter, cold-weather respiratory illnesses are starting to show up again. Schaffner works with a team that looks at respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, in kids. The virus is primarily found in young children, but can also appear in adults of all ages with chronic medical conditions. Similar to the flu, RSV tends to strike in winter.
“It’s been quite clear that southeastern states have seen a very unseasonal increase in hospitalized RSV infections,” Schaffner says. “This is just evidence of the fact that there are respiratory viruses out there. People are getting together very closely, and this has provided some opportunity for these viruses to be spread.”
So the flu, and viruses that cause colds and other respiratory illnesses, didn’t die out. They’re out there, ready to give you the sniffles. It’s just a matter of running into one at your maskless happy hour. “It just reinforces how important our social distancing activities were and how effective they were,” Schaffner says.
While your immune response is more or less fixed by adulthood, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to take care of it like any other system in your body. “A healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep are all parts of a healthy lifestyle, which includes a healthy immune system,” Green says. However, he notes, “diets and supplements that purport to improve immunity are largely nonsense.”
Sure, if I’m being honest, leading a healthy lifestyle hasn’t been my priority this summer. After a year of being cooped up, I’ve focused on having fun. I’m sleeping less and dining out more than I was during lockdown. Add in lingering stress and anxiety from the pandemic, and you’ve got the perfect cocktail for a summer cold. (In fact, Green suspects PTSD could also explain why so many people are getting sick right now, as there’s some evidence it can affect the immune system.)
After two weeks of coughing, I’m finally over my cold. Will being slightly sick all the time once again become my MO? I hope not. While I don’t plan to resume non-stop mask use, I do plan to find a more balanced lifestyle as we shift back into “normalcy.” More sleep and veggies, less reliance on packaged Vitamin C. As for this year’s flu season, just around the corner? We’ll handle that one when we get there.