Why Everyone Has the Worst Summer Cold Ever

As pandemic restrictions begin to relax, common viruses that cause drippy noses, stuffy heads and other cold symptoms have roared back to taunt your immune system.

By Tara Parker-Pope

Yes, the summer cold and cough season really is worse than usual.

“I’ve had bad colds, but I’ve never experienced a virus like this,” said Holly Riddel, 55, an entrepreneur in Redondo Beach, Calif., who has been suffering from congestion, clogged ears and a raspy throat for about two weeks. “I want this gone. I haven’t been able to work out. I’m just not feeling like myself.”

Months of pandemic restrictions aimed at Covid-19 had the unintended but welcome effect of stopping flu, cold and other viruses from spreading. But now that masks are off and social gatherings, hugs and handshakes are back, the run-of-the-mill viruses that cause drippy noses, stuffy heads, coughs and sneezes have also returned with a vengeance.

“It was a bad chest cold — chest congestion, a rattling cough,” said Laura Wehrman, 52, a wardrobe supervisor for film and television, who caught a weeklong bug after flying to New York from Austin in late June to visit friends. Although she’s fully vaccinated against Covid-19, she took multiple tests to be sure she wasn’t infected. Eventually a doctor confirmed it was a rhinovirus, a common cold virus. She said several of her other friends also have been sick with colds and coughs as well.

“I was staying with one of my best friends, and it got tense for a minute because she had started a new job, and she didn’t want to be sick,” said Ms. Wehrman. “I actually went and checked into a hotel for the last two days so I could just cough away by myself.”

Infectious disease experts say there are a number of factors fueling this hot, sneezy summer. While pandemic lockdowns protected many people from Covid-19, our immune systems missed the daily workout of being exposed to a multitude of microbes back when we commuted on subways, spent time at the office, gathered with friends and sent children to day care and school.

Although your immune system is likely as strong as it always was, if it hasn’t been alerted to a microbial intruder in a while, it may take a bit longer to get revved up when challenged by a pathogen again, experts say. And while some viral exposures in our past have conferred lasting immunity, other illnesses may have given us only transient immunity that waned as we were isolating at home.

“Frequent exposure to various pathogens primes or jazzes up the immune system to be ready to respond to that pathogen,” said Dr. Paul Skolnik, an immunovirologist and chair of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “If you’ve not had those exposures, your immune system may be a little slower to respond or doesn’t respond as fully, leading to greater susceptibility to some respiratory infections and sometimes longer or more protracted symptoms.”

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