'Super cold' threatening Australia's post-lockdown summer

Health experts are warning that new, and potentially more deadly, strains of the common cold and influenza look set to hit Australia just as we celebrate new freedoms and welcome warmer weather.

One of the unexpected benefits of the COVID-19 lockdowns of the past two years has been the relative lack of cold and flu cases in the community compared with previous years.

In 2019, there were 313,033 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza recorded in Australia, resulting in 953 deaths. In 2020, that number dropped to around 20,000 cases and 37 deaths. So far in 2021, there have been just 484 recorded cases and no deaths.

Being confined to your home for extended periods obviously limits your chances of coming in contact with the usual bugs and sniffles. What has worked to slow the spread of COVID has also slowed the spread of colds and flu.

But experts say that’s about to change. Dr Ian Mackay, a virologist from the University of Queensland, told the Sydney Morning Herald that with the two most populous states exiting lockdowns and others opening their borders, there will inevitably be an explosion in cold and flu case numbers.

Read: Vitamin D supplements don’t help ward off colds and flu: research

“More colds will definitely happen as we come out of lockdown and mix again,” he says.

Conventional wisdom usually holds that the more than 200 respiratory viruses causing colds and flu are influenced by the seasons – lingering longer and causing worse symptoms during the colder months and clearing more quicker with lighter symptoms during summer.

The pandemic has turned this assumption on its head. Figures show there was an abnormal spike in respiratory virus infections last summer compared with the previous five years. The viruses had big peaks in the warmer months, instead of in the colder months.

Dr Mackay believes the changes mean cold and flu seasonality is influenced more by immunity levels in the community than by changes in the weather.

Read: Tips and tricks for hayfever relief

“So we have much to learn,” he says.

“Clearly, they’re not seasonal. It’s more about how much of the population’s immunity is up to speed with defending against them … because when it’s low, these viruses can do what they like, whenever they like.”

The trend has also been  noted overseas. In the UK, very few restrictions on socialising over summer resulted in health services being inundated with patients presenting with what they dubbed the ‘super cold’.

“We’ve actually been seeing a rise in the number of coughs and colds and viral infections,” says GP Dr Philippa Kaye.

She says cold and flu numbers have been as high as normally seen in winter, with the main reason being the easing of COVID restrictions.

Read: How to get to sleep when you have a cold

“We are mixing in a way that we haven’t been mixing over the past 18 months,” says Dr Kaye.

“During those first lockdowns, we saw numbers of other [non-COVID] infections fall. We think that that was primarily due to the restrictions on meeting up.”

When mixing with friends and family this summer, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) says that despite being vaccinated against COVID people should still maintain social distancing, mask wearing and hand hygiene measures to help prevent other respiratory infections.

“We should be respecting all respiratory viruses a bit more … We’re now living with more understanding that these viruses are spread mainly through an airborne route – not droplets, but tiny little floaty particles that we can be exposed to in a short time and get infected,” Dr Mackay says.

Are you worried about cold and flu cases skyrocketing when restrictions end? Have you already experienced a ‘super cold’? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer



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