CHICAGO — For many, two years of masks, social distancing and hand hygiene has meant not getting sick at all.
But as we move toward a more pre-pandemic day-to-day normalcy the return of runny noses, coughs and the common cold are inevitable. But what do years of germ-free existence mean for our immune systems?
Last year, the flu was nearly wiped out thanks to pandemic precautions.
But now as travel booms, masking becomes optional and social distancing wanes - illnesses like the common cold and flu are making a comeback.
“This year. we haven't really had much influenza, but now that people are unmasking, we're starting to see the numbers tick up for influenza as well,” said Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine
While COVID-19 cases are down, since January outbreaks of the highly contagious norovirus stomach bug have spiked.
Some might be wondering if being too germ-free has weakened our immune systems over time - something known as the “hygiene hypothesis.”
Landon says that’s a misnomer.
“For the first 12 to maybe 20 years of your life, you're really shaping immunity at that time,” she said. "Once you're over that age, we don't think that there's any real benefit to having additional exposures to other things.”
Dr. Yanina Purim-Shem-Tov, vice-chair of the emergency department at Rush University Medical Center points out that our immune systems actually remember what we’ve been exposed to previously, though it might take a little while for the immune response to kick in after so much time.
“You do have antibodies towards the common cold once you get a trigger. Because we haven't seen this common cold in two years, the antibody has to be built up again,” said Dr. Purim-Shem-Tov.
Doctors say the explanation for why these colds may feel worse and last longer than ever before has more to do with your brain than your immune response.
“More likely than not, that cold that you think is the worst cold you ever had just feels that way because you haven't had one in a while,” said Landon.
The bottom line: experts say there’s no evolutionary benefit to getting sick more often. It doesn’t lessen the severity or length of the infections.
The best advice to boost your immune system they say hasn’t changed.
“Vitamin C, lots of fluids. Keep your body healthy. Chicken noodle soup, just like your grandma said. Absolutely. All of those things that you normally would do, lots of rest,” said Dr. Purim-Shem-Tov.
And a little extra hand hygiene couldn’t hurt.
Doctors say the average cold lasts about three to seven days. But could be longer depending on how much you were exposed. And it’s not unusual for coughs to linger for weeks afterward.