Health Conditions / Infectious Diseases

If You’re Worried About Virus Transmission During the Holidays, You’re Not Alone

If You’re Worried About Virus Transmission During the Holidays, You’re Not Alone

I’m as happy as the next person that the COVID-19 pandemic is in a much better place than it was this time last year, and certainly this time two years ago. Thanks to safe and effective vaccines, many folks are better protected from severe disease from the virus, which definitely helps me sleep easier. But one thing that has been keeping me up at night is the seemingly widespread idea that the pandemic has passed and that we don’t need to worry about protecting ourselves and our communities from COVID-19 this winter. I’ve seen this attitude reflected all over social media, as well as in the world around me—it’s almost as if nobody’s even heard of a mask, let alone thought of wearing one in a crowded store.This misconception has been fueled in part by misleading messaging from the federal government. In September, President Biden said the pandemic was “over” in a 60 Minutes interview. (He later tried to backtrack, explaining that the pandemic isn’t as bad as it once was.) On top of this, the CDC rolled back mask guidelines in health care settings right before the start of cold and flu season, as SELF previously reported, and local leaders have all but given up on emphasizing the importance of wearing masks this winter. This, combined with the fact that folks desperately want this to be over, has led to our current reality, in which very few people are taking the risks of COVID seriously anymore—despite the fact that every week about 1,800 Americans are still dying from the virus, more than 300,000 are getting infected, and cases are steadily rising in much of the country, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How concerned you are with getting or spreading COVID probably depends on your individual health and circumstances, but we should all be doing what we can to keep our communities well this winter, especially since the steps we can take to do so—like wearing a mask when you’re traveling for the holidays—are super simple. These precautions matter because they have the potential to save lives—but I also know that many people will roll their eyes at even basic preventative tactics at this stage in the pandemic. The last three years have taken a toll on all of us, but that’s no excuse to give up now—even if masking up in supermarkets may earn you some strange looks. Though it feels superficial, I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what other people think, and that, in addition to keeping people safe, these practices have a minimal impact on my day-to-day life—the worst that could happen is that I could forget my mask and have to double back to my house or buy another.The potential consequences of not being careful, however, are dire. I’m anxious about my personal well-being as well as the general health of my community; specifically, I’m scared of getting reinfected with COVID-19, which I got this past summer, and which wore me out for a full week. COVID is most definitely not “just a cold,” and we need to quit referring to it as such, especially since research is starting to unveil the potential health implications of reinfection, including a heightened risk of developing long COVID. 

How Often Do You Really Need to Wash Your Comforter?

How Often Do You Really Need to Wash Your Comforter?

If your pets sleep in your bed with you, there’s a higher chance you’ll end up with outside invaders in your bed. “Dogs bringing in ticks [which then attach] to owners is a very real and not uncommon situation,” Dr. Russo says. “Likewise, cats go outside and may hunt and kill other animals with potentially dangerous infections, like tularemia, and can infect owners.” Allergens—particularly dust mites—are the biggest cause for concern.While bacteria and sweat aren’t likely to build up enough to make you sick, dust mites sure can. Obviously, not everyone is allergic to dust mites, but if you are, it’s more important to regularly clean your sheets and comforter.“The most common types of allergens found in mattress and pillows and comforters and blankets are dust mites,” Denisa E. Ferastraoaru, MD, assistant professor of medicine in allergy and immunology and attending physician at Einstein/Montefiore and Jacobi Medical Centers, tells SELF. “Dust mites are small, little creatures. They live wherever we live because they feed on our skin flakes.” And they’re most commonly found in the bedroom, she adds.It’s sort of impossible to rid your bedroom of dust mites—everybody has them, no matter how clean you keep the house, says Dr. Ferastraoaru.Other allergens can linger on your comforter, too. If you sit on your bed in your outside clothes, you can transfer things like pollen, grass, and ragweed onto your comforter. And if your dog or cat is running around outside and then sleeping in your bed, they can drag in these seasonal allergens, too. This may cause problems for you, depending on how sensitive you are, Dr. Steele says.How often should you wash your comforter then? You should generally aim to wash your comforter once a week. There are some logistical challenges that make it difficult to wash a large, bulky comforter this often, which is typically what experts recommend to keep linens fresh and minimize allergens. Another option: Slip your comforter into an allergy-proof cover, and wash that once a week, Ryan Steele, DO, board-certified allergist-immunologist and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Yale School of Medicine, tells SELF. “Adding an allergy cover, which might also be called a dust mite cover, will add an extra layer of protection to lock in dust mites and reduce the number of allergens,” Dr. Steele says.These covers work by basically locking dust mites inside the comforter so that they can’t get out and be inhaled, Dr. Ferastraoaru explains. “The fabric is very tight and will not let dust mites and dust mite allergens through.” Even better: If you’re in the market for a new comforter, put an allergy cover on it before you use it the first time to prevent dust mites from getting inside in the first place, she says.Dr. Steele recommends washing your sheets and all covers, including pillow and comforter covers, once a week on the hottest setting possible to reduce the number of allergens. If you have seasonal allergies, use the dryer. “A lot of people like to get that fresh scent on linens by drying them on the outside clothesline. That may be great for the smell, but that is a giant pollen trap,” Dr. Steele says. “Using the dryer is going to help reduce the load of the allergens.”If your allergies are acting up despite regularly washing your sheets and comforter cover, you may need to kick your pet out of the bed, Dr. Steele says. It could be a difficult transition if you’re both used to cuddling all night, but you’ll ultimately sleep more soundly if you eliminate all potential sources of allergens. No matter who’s in bed with you, it’s worth it to keep things clean.Related:

Here’s Why ‘Monkeypox’ Is Now ‘Mpox’

Here’s Why ‘Monkeypox’ Is Now ‘Mpox’

The World Health Organization (WHO) will now refer to monkeypox as mpox following criticisms of the prior name’s offensive origins. The WHO announced the change in a Monday press release, writing that they had seen reports of “racist and stigmatizing language online” after the outbreak of the virus expanded earlier this year.“In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name,” the statement reads. Mpox is now the preferred term, and it will fully replace the term monkeypox after a transition period of one year during which WHO will use the two interchangeably. The term will be added to the current International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a synonym and will be an official part of the next iteration of the ICD, which is “the current global standard for health data, clinical documentation, and statistical aggregation,” per the press release. Although updating the ICD usually takes several years, the process was expedited but not any less rigorous. According to the press release, the WHO consulted with several advisory bodies about the name change, including representatives from 45 different countries. Even so, the change has been in the works for some time. In June, a group of African scientists and allies published an open letter urging a name change and calling for Western media to stop using images of Black people exclusively in news coverage of the virus. “In the context of the current global outbreak, continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatizing,” the scientists wrote. The WHO agreed to change the name that same month but faced criticism when several weeks had passed and no change had occurred. In July, New York City public health commissioner Ashwin Vasan, MD, PhD, sent a letter to the WHO pressing the organization on the urgency of renaming the virus for fear of perpetuating stigma. In addition to noting that the name could possibly mislead people into thinking that the virus originated from monkeys, Dr. Vasan drew a parallel to the emerging days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “Early misinformation about the virus led people to believe that it was spread to humans after people in Africa engaged in sexual activity with monkeys,” Dr. Vasan wrote. “This kind of false messaging created incalculable harm and stigma for decades to come. Continuing to use the term ‘monkeypox’ to describe the current outbreak may reignite these traumatic feelings of racism and stigma—particularly for Black people and other people of color, as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, and it is possible that they may avoid engaging in vital health care services because of it.”While the change is long overdue, it’s certainly welcome at a time when LGBTQ+ people already face heightened stigma and scrutiny. Despite overall numbers of mpox diagnoses trending downward in the United States, the number of those affected remains to be disproportionately queer Black people as a result of inequitable vaccine distribution and systemic health care problems.  This article was originally published on Them.Related:

How to Clean a Shower Curtain and Liner to Fight Mold

How to Clean a Shower Curtain and Liner to Fight Mold

When it comes time to clean your bathroom, it’s easy to just go ham on the hard surfaces with a bleach-based disinfectant and call it a day. But cleaning your shower curtain always feels like a separate, somehow more challenging task: It’s not hard and smooth. It’s made of fabric or plastic, or both. If you’re stumped about how to approach it to get it as clean as the rest of your bathroom, you’re not alone: I’m definitely guilty of just tossing a shower curtain or two because cleaning them felt like too much of a hassle. Turns out, it’s actually not that difficult! Here, a germ expert and a cleaning expert explain why and how to clean your shower curtain, the cherry on top of a sparkling-clean bathroom.Why is it so important to clean your shower curtain?A slimy shower curtain is generally not dangerous—just gross. “For people with normal immune systems, the shower curtain probably poses a relatively small threat,” Paul Pottinger, MD, professor of medicine and co-director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the University of Washington Medical Center, tells SELF. Yes, even if it’s so dirty that there’s visible mold, Dr. Pottinger says it isn’t likely to cause any sort of infection or illness. As for that infamous pink gunk: That’s what’s known as biofilm. It’s essentially a buildup of microorganisms that stick together to form a visible film, commonly in a pink ring around the bathtub. These microorganisms can come from our bodies or the water we shower in, Dr. Pottinger says. They like moist environments, so if your shower curtain is wet, it’s really easy for them to stick and multiply there. “Anything that’s wet tends to breed organisms,” Dr. Pottinger adds.As SELF has previously reported, when foreign bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms build up enough in the sticky biofilm, they can potentially cause skin infections like staph or bad acne breakouts. But chances are, you’re not rubbing your skin against the moldy edges of the shower curtain (and if you are, this is your sign to stop). The risk of getting a skin infection from your shower curtain itself is pretty slim. Still, it’s not exactly pleasant to look at!A caveat: People with weakened immune systems need to be more careful about potential exposure to harmful bacteria. If you have a healthy immune system, there’s really no need to worry about shower curtain slime. But anyone with a weakened immune system is at increased risk of acquiring germs and infections from the environment, Dr. Pottinger notes. “People with reduced immune systems may be counseled by their doctors to pay special attention to keeping the environment extra clean,” he says. “These people, in particular, may want to pay attention to the shower curtain,” Pottinger adds, “because it can be a source of microbial growth.”What’s the best way to clean a shower curtain?Aim to clean your shower curtain every three months. “This is usually enough to keep it in good shape and stay ahead of any mold growth,” Lauren Bowen, cleaning expert and director of franchise operations at the cleaning services company Two Maids & A Mop, tells SELF. If it hasn’t been three months, but you notice mold or discoloration or a funky smell, that means it’s time for a cleaning. You’ve got a few options for how to do it.How to clean a shower curtain in the washing machineIf you have a washing machine, you can wash both a cloth shower curtain and a plastic one in there. “If the curtain is made of cloth, put it in your washer on the warm water setting and use gentle laundry detergent. Make sure to choose the highest water level and the gentlest cycle to avoid damage,” Bowen notes. Hang it back on the curtain rod to dry.

Here’s How Often You Really Need to Clean Your Bathroom

Here’s How Often You Really Need to Clean Your Bathroom

Cleaning the bathroom is my absolute least favorite chore. I’d rather do pretty much anything other than get on my hands and knees and scrub the gunk out of shower tiles or swirl a brush around the toilet bowl while praying that no human waste particles splash out and hit me. But… the alternative of a grimy, slimy bathroom is far less appealing, so I’m left wondering: How can I do the bare minimum to keep things pristine and sanitary? I talked with a few microbiology experts to figure out how often I really need to clean my bathroom—and a cleaning pro to get some tips for making the job a little easier. Here’s how to get it all done while spending the least possible amount of time hunched over the john.Clean your bathroom once a week as a good rule of thumb.Kelly Reynolds, PhD, MSPH, professor and director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona, recommends cleaning your bathroom at least weekly. More often than that might be overkill. “A lot of microbes grow slowly, especially when we’re talking about yeast and mold in the bathroom,” Dr. Reynolds says. “That can take days or weeks to grow.” Cleaning hard surfaces—toilet, counter and sink, bathtub and shower—weekly with a cleaner that’s labeled as a disinfectant will kill germs and keep the number of pathogens low.If someone in your household is sick, do your best to clean the bathroom once a day.The exception to the weekly-regimen rule: If someone in your household is sick with an infectious illness, like the stomach flu or COVID, they should try to clean the high-contact surfaces in the bathroom they use daily, Dr. Reynolds says, including the toilet, sink, shower knobs, counters, and doorknobs. “Try to not share the bathroom with them, but if you must, clean it daily.” Especially if the illness causes vomiting or diarrhea, it’s best to get in there and clean thoroughly before someone else uses the same space—and even better if the sick person is well enough to clean it themselves.Find the difference between “untidy” and “unsanitary.”Known infectious illnesses aside, a less-than-sparkling bathroom isn’t likely to impact your health in any meaningful way, Paul Pottinger, MD, professor of medicine and co-director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the University of Washington Medical Center, tells SELF. “It is unlikely that someone with a normal immune system would be at risk of catching a dangerous infection in the bathroom from one of their housemates via hard surfaces such as the floor or the toilet seat,” Dr. Pottinger says. That’s because we’re already exposed to the microbes that our housemates have on them, and vice versa. That’s even truer when it comes to an intimate partner, Dr. Pottinger says. Even visible mold in the shower probably won’t make a person with a healthy immune system sick, he says.Clean your shower and bathtub to avoid skin infections.One big exception? The fungus that causes athlete’s foot, Dr. Pottinger says, which can be extremely contagious. “The world is covered with germs, and there’s always fungus and mold around us, but it tends not to be a threat unless it settles in a damp area, and that’s where it can then grow,” he says. “You can absolutely catch this superficial fungal infection of [the] feet if it’s in the shower, and that’s why it’s so common.” And the spores can lurk in the bath and shower even if a surface looks clean to the naked eye, Dr. Pottinger notes.Bathtubs can also grow what’s known as a biofilm, or a buildup of microorganisms that stick together to form a visible film—the infamous pink ring—around the tub or drain. As SELF has previously reported, foreign bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms can build up in this biofilm and cause skin infections like staph, or just really bad acne breakouts. The wet environment of the bathtub also creates the perfect environment for them to multiply. Since there has to be enough of an organism for it to cause a problem, this type of environment increases the chance that these bugs could cause a problem.

How Long Does It Take for the Flu Shot to Be Fully Effective?

How Long Does It Take for the Flu Shot to Be Fully Effective?

Flu season is in full swing, folks. Influenza, which ramped up early in the US this year, has already caused nearly 3 million illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus has also caused at least 23,000 hospitalizations and 1,300 deaths so far. So if you haven’t booked a flu shot appointment already, here’s your sign—especially because the vaccine’s protection doesn’t just magically appear overnight.In fact, it can take up to two weeks after your vaccination for your body to reap the optimal benefits, per the CDC. This is because it takes time for your immune system to respond to the vaccine, and so your body needs a minute to build up protective, flu-fighting antibodies.Because of this gap, the CDC usually recommends that people try to get vaccinated before the end of October—but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. According to the Mayo Clinic, even getting a flu shot as late as February can still help protect you from outbreaks that occur late in the season. Of course, the sooner you can get your shot, the better. (This is especially true for people who have a higher risk of flu complications, including people with certain health conditions, people older than 65, infants and toddlers, and those who are immunocompromised—as well as anyone who lives with a person in a high-risk group.)“The flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctors visits each year,” Diana Finkel, DO, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, previously told SELF.Other common-sense precautions are also worth remembering this winter. As SELF previously reported, wearing a face mask and social distancing don’t just help slow the spread of COVID—these steps can also help protect you and those around you from the flu and other respiratory illnesses, like RSV or even the common cold.The bottom line: Since it takes up to two weeks for the flu shot to offer optimal protection, you should try to be extra vigilant until 14 days have passed since your appointment. And if you haven’t already gotten yours, make an appointment now to protect yourself—and your community—from an illness that’s already hospitalizing thousands.Related:

13 RSV Symptoms in Babies All Caregivers Should Be Aware of Right Now

13 RSV Symptoms in Babies All Caregivers Should Be Aware of Right Now

Thanks to the pandemic, you’re probably a lot more aware of infectious diseases than you ever thought you would be. We wouldn’t be surprised if you can recite the symptoms of COVID-19 in your sleep and know all about the importance of getting your annual flu shot (especially this year). But there’s another virus that’s making headlines right now that many people aren’t as well-versed in. It’s called respiratory syncytial virus, better known as RSV, and cases are currently soaring in the US, particularly in babies and young children.According to surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV cases have been rising sharply since October. Public health experts are warning about the potential impact on kids, as the virus is overwhelming many hospitals and rapidly filling pediatric ICU beds. If you have kids—and an infant, in particular—here’s what you need to know about RSV symptoms in babies, plus when to seek medical care for a sick child.First, a little background on RSV.RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes coldlike symptoms, according to the CDC. In fact, doctors usually can’t tell just from your symptoms if you have RSV or another virus that causes the common cold, Danelle Fisher, MD, the chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF.Most people recover just fine (in about a week or two) when they’re sick with RSV. However, the symptoms can potentially become serious for infants and other young children, as well as older adults and those with severely weakened immune systems. In fact, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, inflammation of the small airways in the lungs, and pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, in kids under the age of one in the US, per the CDC.“Because children less than two years of age have smaller lower airways, the inflammation, which results in mucus production, can occlude those small lower airways, leading to labored breathing and sometimes lower oxygen levels,” Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tells SELF. Kids two and older have larger lower airways, though, and “tend to have less respiratory difficulty with RSV infections,” even if their lower airways do get inflamed, Dr. Olivero says.Back to topHow does RSV spread to babies?It’s important to get this out of the way: Almost all children get RSV at least once before they’re two years old, per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Infants usually get RSV from parents, other caregivers, or close family members, although they can also pick it up when they’re out in public too, John C. Brancato, MD, division head of emergency medicine at Connecticut Children’s, tells SELF.The virus spreads in a few ways, according to the CDC:When an infected person coughs or sneezes, which can circulate virus-laden droplets that then make contact with a child’s eyes, nose, or mouthWhen a person touches a surface that has the virus on it (like a doorknob or toy) and then touches a child’s face before washing their handsWhen a child has direct contact with the virus, like getting a hug or kiss from someone who is infected with RSV

Study: COVID Reinfection Boosts Risk of Long COVID, Health Complications

Study: COVID Reinfection Boosts Risk of Long COVID, Health Complications

The potential risks of COVID reinfection are very real, regardless of your vaccination status, new research suggests. Having COVID more than once boosts your risk of hospitalization, developing long COVID, or even dying from the virus, according to a large new study published in the journal Nature Medicine.The goal of the research was to determine whether the risk of complications goes up the more you’re infected with the virus, according to lead study author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, assistant professor at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. “The answer is absolutely yes,” he tells SELF.For the study, Dr. Al-Aly’s team used data from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The researchers included 519,767 people who were initially infected and tested positive for COVID between March 1, 2020, and April 6, 2022. Of those people, 40,947 were reinfected between June 1, 2020, and June 25, 2022. The infected and reinfected groups were compared to a control group of more than 5.3 million people.What they concluded is harrowing: People who are infected with COVID two or more times are twice as likely to die for any reason; three times as likely to need hospitalization; three times as likely to have lung problems; three times as likely to have cardiovascular problems; and three times as likely to have a blood clot. They’re also more likely to experience fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, kidney disorders, mental health disorders, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and neurological disorders. The risk of developing complications from COVID is likely highest during the first 30 days of the infection, Dr. Al-Aly says.It could be that some people’s risk of these complications is higher than others, but Dr. Al-Aly’s team didn’t do subgroup analyses, he says—meaning, experts don’t yet know if these health issues are more or less of a threat to certain people after reinfection. Regardless, the study underscores that everyone should be especially cautious of long COVID symptoms after testing positive for the virus, especially after a reinfection, Thomas Russo, MD, an infectious disease expert at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells SELF.While more research needs to be done, the study helps solidify what doctors and scientists have been trying to communicate for years now, Dr. Al-Aly says: “COVID is absolutely not a common cold, not even a flu. This is far more serious than that,” he explains. “If you had it before, you’re not sealed from adverse events.”Though the study included a large number of people, it’s worth mentioning that the participant pool may not reflect the diversity in the US (or the world), Dr. Russo says, since people in the VA database are more likely to be cis men and have underlying health problems. Only about 10% of study participants were women, and they weren’t divided into subgroups by age, race, or sex assigned at birth. The study authors also acknowledged that the way we think about reinfections will likely change as more research on the topic is explored.

Can Adults Get RSV From Children? What to Know as Cases Spike

Can Adults Get RSV From Children? What to Know as Cases Spike

Chances are, if you take care of young children—or have just been a bit on edge about this year’s cold and flu season—you’ve heard a lot about respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) lately. RSV isn’t exactly new: It’s a common virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. That said, very young children and older adults face a higher risk of getting really, really sick from it.This year, RSV is surging beyond expected case counts; in fact, it’s starting to overwhelm many hospitals, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In October, RSV caused a spike in pediatric hospitalizations that pushed some children’s medical centers to capacity. This is becoming a bigger concern everywhere, but the situation is especially bad in certain parts of the country. For instance, Orange County, California, recently declared a health emergency, and every single pediatric hospital bed in the state of Rhode Island was full this week, according to reporting from NBC News.As infections continue to spread, you may be wondering: Can adults get RSV from children? Rest assured that most of us have been exposed to the virus before—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be super aware of its impact right now, especially if you have vulnerable loved ones around. Below, what you should know about RSV in adults, including common symptoms and how you can reduce your risk of catching—and transmitting—this virus.Can adults get RSV from kids?First, some important context: You’ve likely already been infected with RSV. “Almost everyone sees RSV by the time they’re two and develops antibodies,” Thomas Russo, MD, an infectious disease expert at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells SELF.But, as is the case with most respiratory viruses, your immunity to RSV wanes over time, meaning you’ll likely get infected again and again over the course of your life. This is especially true for parents or other caregivers of young kids. “Since children get RSV in their first two years of life, they’re at a dependent stage of their lives, and parents are going to be in close contact,” Dr. Russo says.So, yes, adults can get RSV from children who have the virus, and vice versa; it can be transmitted back and forth from anyone who is infected with it. RSV is typically spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes around others, per the CDC. You can also contract the virus by touching or kissing the face of a child (or anyone else) who has it. RSV can also live on surfaces, like doorknobs, so you can also become infected with it by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose with unwashed hands.Again, most generally healthy adults won’t get severely ill from RSV—but they can still spread the virus to other people who may face a higher risk. “Whether it’s flu, RSV, or COVID, the high-risk groups are quite the same,” William Schaffner, MD, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells SELF. In addition to infants and young children, adults who are 65 or older, have chronic heart or lung disease, or have a weakened immune system are more likely to develop severe RSV symptoms or complications.Are RSV symptoms different in adults compared to kids?The most common RSV symptoms—which include fever, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, fatigue, and decreased appetite—tend to overlap in children and adults, Dr. Schaffner says. Symptoms usually show up four to six days after the initial infection, per the CDC. (Infants can experience a unique set of symptoms, though, including fussiness, irritability, loss of interest in activities, and changes in breathing patterns, per the Cleveland Clinic.)

How an ‘Immunity Gap’ May Be Fueling a Spike in Respiratory Illnesses

How an ‘Immunity Gap’ May Be Fueling a Spike in Respiratory Illnesses

This winter is shaping up to be a wild one: Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is surging in young children, the flu ramped up early in many parts of the country, and chances are you or someone you know has already suffered through an especially nasty cold, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Many of the respiratory viruses that were in a bit of a lull over the past two years seem to be coming back in full force—and experts say we may have an “immunity gap” to blame for that.An immunity gap can develop when your immune system essentially gets a break from being exposed to a mix of common pathogens—bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that can cause illness—in your environment, Aimee Bernard, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of immunology and microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, tells SELF.When you’re out and about—say, going to school, work, the gym, or restaurants—you come in contact with all types of pathogens that generally help keep your immune system on high alert and ready to protect you from infectious diseases.But during the height of the pandemic, much of the country took critical public health precautions—like masking, social distancing, and working and studying remotely, among others—to help slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. It makes sense, then, that our immune systems had less exposure to other infectious pathogens in recent years too, and therefore are slightly less prepared to take them on now, as they start to circulate widely.That’s one possible reason why many respiratory viruses are surging atypically right now, Dr. Bernard says. She likens an immunity gap to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which posits that overly-sterile environments (a.k.a., super clean) “fail to provide the necessary exposure to germs required to ‘educate’ the immune system so it can learn to launch its defense responses,” as the US Food and Drug Administration notes.What, specifically, all of this might mean for this year’s cold and flu season has yet to be seen, but Dr. Bernard believes it’s possible that the country is going to experience a stronger uptick in hospitalizations related to infectious diseases than usual. Some areas are already seeing this unfold: Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, for example, confirmed its pediatric unit is so overwhelmed with RSV and other respiratory illnesses, it’s considering working with the National Guard and FEMA to potentially set up a field tent to handle the swell of patients. (If you’re taking care of a young child, here’s more information about how RSV can affect kids.)Who will be most affected by immunity gaps is a bit less clear, mainly because immunity gaps in specific groups of people haven’t been closely studied, since there hasn’t been a global pandemic in recent history. Experts know that we develop an immune “memory” of sorts after being infected with influenza, for instance, which can help soften the blow of future infections—so many people are likely more vulnerable right now due to the historically quiet 2020 and 2021 flu seasons. According to Dr. Bernard, older people—whose immune systems already aren’t quite as robust—may be even more susceptible to these infections. It’s not entirely understood whether an immunity gap would impact other immunocompromised individuals, like those with underlying conditions, since their risk is already higher than people who are otherwise healthy.

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