The cold that's not Covid: Is this winter's sniffle worse and lasting longer?

Coughing, sneezing, and a runny or blocked nose are all symptoms of the common cold. Credit: Andrea Piacquadio/ Pexels

By ITV News content producer Talia Shadwell

A chorus of coughs, sniffs and sneezes are filling the air again, as the winter's seasonal colds send kids and workers home sick.

The UK Health Security Agency's (UHSA) latest figures showed NHS 111 calls for cold or flu remained stable, but calls about coughs increased nationally in the week ending February 12.

This year's common cold viruses may not be worse than previous years' bugs - but the feeling of a harsher or longer-laster illness than usual is certainly not all in your head, as medical experts explained to ITV News.

Back-to-back bugsThe common cold is caused by several families of viruses, including rhinovirus and coronavirus variants - different from the Sars-CoV-2 member of the family behind the Covid-19 pandemic.At any one time, multiple viruses are circulating and infecting people, virologist Dr Phillip Gould, the deputy head of school at Coventry University’s School of Life Sciences, explained.

Different types of viruses tend to peak among different age groups at various times of the year.

So when people notice they just can't shake a cold, they may actually be experiencing a string of viral infections back-to-back, he told ITV News.People are frequently struck ill by more than one virus in quick succession, which can lead to the impression of a worse, or longer-lasting illness, Dr Gould continued.

There are complex reasons for this, including that the immunity against viruses that cause colds doesn't tend to be long-lasting, which Dr Gould explains is why many of us expect to catch the bug at least once every year.

Your health, nutrition, and fatigue levels also affect your immune system's ability to fend off a virus.

That's why an exhausted person who has already been struck down with one virus could find themselves sick over, and over again, Dr Gould explained.

"The probability of just having a single infection in one month may not be the case - you can be infected with a few types of viruses, or be exposed to one after the other.

"By getting them close together - your reaction may grow stronger or milder."

Is 'immunity debt' causing us to get sicker?

"Certainly with the introduction of lockdowns during Covid, and those earlier strict restrictions, we saw a dramatic decline in other types of respiratory infections," Dr Gould said.

But this phenomenon has since subsided in the UK, where populations have been mixing freely, and vaccines have replaced social distancing as the main form of protection from Covid, he explained.

Passengers wearing face masks on a platform at Canning Town underground station in London Credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Society-wide behavioural change could be driving a perception that colds are worse in the wake of the pandemic, when many experienced long periods without a cold or flu infection, Dr Gould said.

A greater social acceptability of remote working for many adults may also have reduced their recent experience of ordinary winter sicknesses, Dr Gould said.

"Because kids are going to school they will still be getting colds. Many adults have the option, probably, of changing their work pattern, and being able to work from home much more than they did before.

"This means that people might stay away when sick, they are able to change their behaviour, and work from home if their job allows them to do that."

Widespread working from home was one of the biggest behavioural changes of 2020. Credit: Marta Filipczyk/Unsplash

This could mean your immune system has had less exposure to particular viruses, weakening the memory it uses to mount a defence - but this depends on factors including previous infections, and general health, Dr Gould said.

"Sometimes it's actually good to have been previously infected by a virus - because your immune system is on high alert. But it's multi-faceted."

The feeling of worse illness could also be driven by perception, he added.The Covid pandemic heightened awareness of viruses and signs of sickness, and may cause people to take greater notice of their hygiene and health than they did in years gone by, Dr Gould explained.

"This winter, I don't think there's any worse viruses, or that people are having viruses in a different way than they did pre-Covid," Dr Gould said.

"I think the vast majority of people are more aware of what viral infection is, and what precautions they might want to take."

Flu is one of the most common illnesses during the colder months Credit: PA

Demand for cold and flu drugs surging

Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMP) chief executive and pharmacist, Dr Leyla Hannbeck, said pharmacies were generally experiencing an at least 30% rise in demand for cold and flu drugs this winter.

She told ITV News: "It's definitely higher than previous years, with a lot of people coming in saying they have been having symptoms."

The demand was higher than previous winters, and was focused on commonly sought over-the-counter remedies, including cough medicines, painkillers, children's medicine Calpol, and remedies like Lemsip and Day and Night Nurse.

Dr Hannbeck said there was no reason for people to panic or stockpile cold and flu drugs, as she said pharmacies expected to be able to meet demand.

Paracetamol is a commonly in-demand painkiller. Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/Press Association Images

But Dr Hannbeck, who had previously raised the alarm about antibiotics shortages, urged stakeholders involved in helping the industry procure over-the-counter medicines, including manufacturers and the government, to support pharmacies.

"We want to ensure we are prepared in advance to meet the demand - especially when we're already aware it's going to be a harsh winter, we need to be able to ensure that preparations are in place to enable (pharmacies) to give the support that is needed."

She said the AIMP is "happy to support" the under-pressure NHS, but needed additional help to meet the demand that had increasingly put pharmacies on the front-line during the pandemic, and now strikes, GP appointment shortages, and treatment backlogs."What we are seeing is a lot of pressure being pushed onto pharmacies, because of hospital, ambulance strikes."

Free testing for Covid-19 has now ended. Credit: PA

Are Covid case numbers still rising?

While flu cases are continuing to fall, the number of patients with Covid is on the rise again, putting further pressure on NHS staff trying to clear a near-record backlog of treatment demand.

Health leaders are urging vulnerable people to get their Covid and flu jabs, as the NHS comes under significant pressure.

According to the latest ONS Infection Survey figures, in the week ending February 7 around 1 in 55 people were infected with Covid in England and in Scotland, around 1 in 65 in Wales, and numbers continued to decline in Northern Ireland, where around 1 in 80 were infected.

NHS England said patients presented with nearly 1,500 cases of flu and norovirus in hospital last week – significantly higher than last year – as well as other seasonal illnesses, which all impacted demand for beds.

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