GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As mask mandates subside, health officials are seeing an increase in prolonged symptoms connected to the common cold and influenza.
Over the past two years, hospitals across the nation saw record lows in influenza cases. Health experts attribute the decrease in cases to better hygiene and people wearing masks.
However, now that COVID-19 cases have stabilized, many people are lessening up on their hand-washing routines.
“When we haven’t had these common cold viruses for a couple of years, our immunity is going to be down lower than it would be,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan with Spectrum Health. “Hence, the reason people might experience symptoms a little bit longer than what we typically expect them.”
The National Institutes of Health said symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 may present the same but are caused by different viruses.
“Distinguishing COVID from flu can be difficult because the symptoms overlap so much,” explained Dr. Brooke Bozick, an NIH expert on respiratory diseases.
Cough, fever, tiredness and muscle aches are common to both the flu and COVID-19, says Kristen Coleman, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. Symptoms specific to COVID-19 include the loss of taste or smell.
Common colds, meanwhile, tend to be milder with symptoms including a stuffy nose and sore throat. Fevers are more common with the flu.
Experts say testing is the best way to determine what you have. The viruses that cause colds, the flu and COVID-19 are spread the same way — through droplets from the nose and mouth of infected people. And they can all be spread before a person realizes they’re infected.
Spectrum Health reports that it is seeing patients who are fighting the cold and flu for up to a week.
“We rely on getting [exposure to the flu and cold] every so often, so it gives a little boost to our immune system,” Sullivan said. “That way when we do get them, the symptoms are limited to three or four days until you start to feel better.”
There is no cure for the common cold. Typical treatments include rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medicines.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.