’Tis the Season for Respiratory Illness: Cold, Flu, and COVID-19
The fall and early winter months are commonly known as “cold and flu season.” Illness runs rampant, from the common cold and the latest strain of influenza to more severe conditions, like pneumonia, and, in recent years, COVID-19. With fewer protections in place this year, nurses are likely to see more — and more severe — cases of respiratory illness.
Colds and flu were already widespread
Around 8% of the U.S. population gets sick with influenza each season, on average. Americans also suffer from 1 billion colds each year. Although the common cold and flu viruses can infect people at any point in the year, they’re most common in the fall and winter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), peak flu activity has been observed most often in December and February. The dry and cold conditions of winter can weaken people’s immune systems and help viruses stabilize, meaning infections become more prominent.
Influenza and rhinovirus (the common cold) aren’t the only illnesses to worry about this season, though. Studies have shown that other severe infections, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as well as complications like pneumonia, circulate more heavily during cold and flu season. Now people have yet another illness to worry about: COVID-19. This year especially, a mix of bacterial and viral infections will be waiting to cause widespread illness.
Lifted restrictions may lead to faster spread
For the past two years, the world has largely been restricted due to mask mandates, social distancing, and occupancy limits. Although these measures were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, they also helped limit the spread of other illnesses like colds and the flu.
Most of these respiratory illnesses spread primarily through droplets when people talk, sneeze, and cough. Masking and physical distancing helped more of the population get through the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021 relatively unscathed. However, this also means that the population has reduced immunity against cold and flu viruses.
Now most of the world has removed these restrictions. The combination of reduced immunity, the ideal climate for viruses, and the uptick in indoor, unmasked gatherings means these illnesses — along with COVID-19 — are poised to surge again.
Prepare for an illness influx
In light of these predictions, the World Health Organization (WHO) has already issued warnings about COVID-19 infection rates in European countries. Like in Europe, U.S. facilities can expect to see an increased number of visits due to respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter months. Increased hospitalizations due to COVID-19, combined with hospitalizations from the flu, could yet again overwhelm health systems around the world.
Nurses must prepare to take care of more patients this cold and flu season — as well as themselves. Vaccinations and booster shots for both influenza and COVID-19 will be particularly helpful in reducing the infection rate and spread of illness. Nurses should practice and encourage preventive measures for the usual cold and flu season, too. Wash your hands frequently and wear a filtered mask in populated settings to reduce the spread of germs, for example. By taking a proactive approach, nurses can minimize their risk of getting sick and make it through cold and flu season more easily and healthily.