If there was a scintilla of a silver lining to the pandemic, it might be that many of us avoided getting a cold or the flu for a year and a half. But when restrictions were lifted, the typical autumn cold returned with a vengeance. You’ve heard it’s name before, no doubt: the super cold (AKA ‘worst cold ever’), with its gale-force symptoms.
The super cold has had a sizeable effect. Calls to 111 about colds, coughs and flu are on the up, according to the UK Health Security Agency; and this week shares in Reckitt Benckiser, the maker of Lemsip, jumped up after its chief executive announced that sales are “higher than where we were in 2019”.
And they might keep rising. For while a normal cold might resolve itself in a few days, people are now reporting that they have been ill for a few weeks, or feel they’ve caught something else as soon as they recovered from the first cold. “How the hell have I got another cold, when I’ve only just got over one”, raged a Twitter user from Nottingham.
So once you’ve tested yourself and ruled out Covid, what’s the cause of this ‘Long not-Covid’ – and what can you do about it?
Your immunity is down
You might be ill for longer than normal because your immune system has not had a lot of recent practise at fighting colds during the lockdowns. Some illnesses, like chickenpox, you tend to only get once in your life as your body can build lasting immunity to them. But for others, like colds, your body tends to only create a short-term immunity, explains Dr Zoe Broughton, a GP based in London. “Long-term immunity relies on the body creating memory B-cells in response to virus exposure,” she says. “[But] for various reasons, common cold viruses don’t produce this type of immunity in the body.”
Instead, your immunity to cold viruses is dependent on how many antibodies remain in your system once you’ve recovered from a cold, and they tend to deplete pretty quickly. Broughton says that this means that after 18 months of social distancing, “your antibody levels to the common cold viruses will be sitting at pretty much zero”, and it might take you much longer than normal to get over a cold.
Catching multiple colds back-to-back
If you’ve been ill for a few weeks or more, you might have experienced some snatches of time in between when you started to feel a little bit better, before relapsing back into symptoms. This might be because you’ve caught different colds in close succession, says Broughton.
“It can feel like you have a never-ending cold”, she told The Telegraph previously. “In fact you have just been unlucky and contracted two cold viruses back to back.”
Broughton says that your immune system might struggle to fight another virus just after getting over the first cold, but this is very dependent on timing. In the first few days of a cold you may actually have more resilience against a secondary infection, given your body will be producing high levels of antiviral compounds, says Professor Ron Eccles, founder of the Common Cold Centre. If you have a runny nose that can also be a helpful defence against other infections as it will help to “wash them out” of your system, says Eccles.
But after the first few days, your immune response will switch to being focused on antibodies, which are specific to individual pathogens and are not a panacea against all viral infections.
If you’ve had a cold and passed it to colleagues or friends, then it’s possible that it could come back to you again, says Eccles. Length of immunity varies hugely between different people, and tends to be stronger for people who were more ill in the first place, but it will likely only be a matter of weeks or months, he says, which isn’t long.
The one hopeful thing is that if you catch the same cold for a second time, it likely won’t be as severe. “The chances are it will be a milder illness, and you might get it again and not get any symptoms”, he says.
Multiple infections at once
It’s also possible to catch multiple viral infections at once, which can deplete your energy and delay your recovery. The worst of all might be simultaneous flu and Covid, according to a new report from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag). They found that the typical stay for people hospitalised with Covid was seven days, but more than doubled to 16 days for those unlucky enough to have the flu too.
Of course, it’s very unlikely that you will be able to find out whether it’s one or more viruses that you are dealing with at once, unless you have laboratory tests.
We’ve forgotten what colds are like
Another reason we might feel like we’re trapped in constant illness could be that after a year and a half of dodging viruses, we’ve simply forgotten what they’re like, says Eccles. “It may be just a perception that people are shocked because they haven’t had a cold for 18 months,” he says. “A common cold isn’t a cold like it used to be because of the fear of Covid, so it might be the psychology has changed and we’re interpreting them differently.”
When to seek help
It is typical for a cold to last up to a fortnight, but if you’re still ill after three weeks then it’s time to contact your GP, according to the NHS. Other symptoms to look out for are feeling suddenly worse, a temperature that is very high or you feel both hot and shivery, shortness of breath, or chest pain. If you have a long-term medical condition or a weakened immune system and you feel ill, or if you are concerned about how ill your child is, you should contact your doctor.Internet Explorer Channel Network