Yep, Everyone Has a Cold Right Now

While coming down with a run-of-the-mill cold would hardly be group-text worthy any other summer, it's seemingly all my friends and I can talk about lately. Just yesterday, on a trip to Duane Reade to pick up more Ricola cough drops and Mucinex after I, too, succumbed, I received a panicked text from a friend, sick for the first time in two years, to the effect of: Why are we all sick? Have our immune systems all gone to shit?!

According to experts, probably not. Our bodies haven't forgotten how to fight off a cold, we just haven't been exposed to as many germs over the past year. By wearing masks, religiously washing our hands, and social distancing to protect ourselves COVID, we were also reducing the chances of getting sick period, says Alexa Mieses Malchuk, M.D., MPH, a family physician in Durham, North Carolina.

Now that we're returning to mask-free life — and exposed to more people and germs on the reg — well, it just makes sense that colds are back just in time for Shot Girl Summer.

While it's a strong possibility some of us are just being a little melodramatic about being sick for the first time in a while, summer colds (typically caused by enteroviruses) can be a bit more intense than winter ones (more often caused by rhinoviruses), says Vivek Cherian, MD, an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. That's because, on top of upper respiratory symptoms, such as a runny nose and sore throat, enteroviruses have a slightly higher tendency for causing other types of discomfort, such as GI symptoms or fevers, he explains. (Plus, being stuck in bed surrounded by snotty tissues when your friends are at the beach adds another layer of pain, IMO.)

In my own late-20s friend group, I noticed many colds popping up after drinking-heavy bachelor and bachelorette weekends — no coincidence, experts confirmed. "Alcohol certainly plays a role in weakening your immune system and therefore making it more of a challenge for your [body] to defend itself against germs," Dr. Cherian says. This can happen in a few different ways: "In the lungs, alcohol damages immune cells lining your airway that can make it more difficult for pathogens to be cleared out, and can make it easier for viruses to gain access to your body," he says. "Our gut is also an extremely important component of our immune system and alcohol can kill healthy bacteria, which typically help reduce our overall risk of infection and keep us healthy." 

Alcohol isn't the only culprit, though. "Anything that depresses your immune system can make you even more vulnerable to infection," Dr. Malchuk says. She points to stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition as other immunity "depressors."

While that may sound like doom and gloom, the good news here is there's a lot we can actually control — and a lot we've learned about how to keep ourselves virus-free after living through COVID. Namely: Avoiding people who are sick, washing your hands often, and continuing to wear a mask (especially in crowded places) can go a long way in staving off colds, Dr. Malchuck adds.

Of course, cold symptoms — which can include sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches, and body aches — can mirror COVID symptoms, so it's a good idea to get tested if you're concerned and especially if you're unvaccinated. That said, if you're fully vaccinated and only experiencing cold symptoms, Dr. Cherian adds that a COVID-19 test isn't necessary. That said, you should still stay home while you ride it out to keep your cold from spreading to the next unsuspecting person. Speaking as one such 'next person' — it's really the least you can do.

So consider this your invitation to stay home, cancel those plans you didn't really want to go to anyway, and catch up on all the Emmy-nominated TV shows you missed. And hey, at least we can all commiserate together.

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