It might be one of the hottest summers on record, but the warm weather hasn’t stopped Lorraine Davies, 35, and her family from catching every virus going. “Since spring it feels like our whole family has been constantly unwell,” she says. “I have had at least four viruses in the past few months. As a busy mum, I’ve just had to try to carry on. There have been days where I’ve put the children to bed and then just fallen asleep because I’m so knackered.”
It’s not the first time they have been hit with a wave of summer viruses since the pandemic began. Last year, her youngest child ended up in A&E with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a cold-like bug that can cause severe illness in babies. “This summer we’ve all had colds, coughs, stomach bugs, as well as Covid. I don’t think we’ve ever been to the doctor this much.”
The illnesses began when the older children returned to school after the Easter holidays and her youngest went back to her childminder. Davies runs a freelance coaching business part-time and the disruption has had a major impact on her work. The constant illnesses have also stopped the family enjoying hobbies and socialising. “I have friends and family who have gone through cancer treatment or are immunocompromised. You just don’t want to take any germs to people who might be vulnerable, so that’s a constant worry.”
Davies isn’t the only one facing these challenges. Across the UK, GP surgeries and hospitals are seeing an influx of patients with typical winter ailments, including coughs, colds, croup, stomach bugs and chickenpox. Dr Hana Patel, a London-based GP and mental health coach who works in the NHS and private practice, says younger children are particularly affected. “During lockdown we came into contact with fewer germs and, as a result, immune systems have not had a chance to develop in some children,” she says. “This is the first summer where people are reverting to normal routines and really mixing again. Children who go to nursery tend to pick up a lot of bugs in their first year, especially in winter. Due to the lockdowns, we are seeing that at a different time of year.”
Dr Patel is also continuing to see large numbers of Covid cases, which can be hard to distinguish from other respiratory viruses. New variants, she says, are “causing slightly different symptoms and people are getting it over and over again”.
Zeinab Ardeshir, the founder of the online pharmacy home delivery service PillSorted, has noticed that people are getting more colds and taking longer to recover. “I’m seeing far more acute prescriptions coming through than we normally do at this time of year,” she says. The majority are for steroid inhalers, which can help people to manage symptoms such as coughs and breathing issues, and antibiotics for those who develop a secondary infection. “We’ve had more than 20 families over the past few weeks with complaints about headaches, sore throats, coughs and fevers that are not clearing up as quickly as a virus would usually clear. They are testing negative for Covid yet continue to be unwell.”
George Icke, 19, a student in Salford, has had a summer cold for the past month. “It got debilitating because everything was so exhausting. I was struggling to work and do normal day-to-day activities – even cleaning became impossible.” When he lost his voice, he had to call in sick to his freelance job as a radio presenter, which meant lost income. “The amount of sickness has definitely been affecting the businesses I’ve been working for. Lots of people are taking time off.” He worries that the problem will worsen when he returns to university and everyone gets “freshers’ flu”. “It’s always bad, but this time people are going to arrive sick.”
According to Dr Maroof Harghandiwal, a functional medical specialist and Covid expert with Zen Healthcare, human immune systems are at their best when they have constant exposure to stimuli. “Most of us went a year without coming into contact with any common bacteria and viruses.” Now when we encounter these bugs, he says, “it may take a little longer” for our immune systems to kick in. “Therefore infection is lasting longer. People’s immune systems have also been affected by anxiety and stress.”
For Suzanne Samaka, 34, “never-ending” bugs have affected her family for months. “I’ve been getting everything, including heavy colds. It feels like the second I get rid of something, I get something else,” she says. Despite being on maternity leave from her banking job and avoiding her usual public transport route, she has experienced a considerable rise in viral infections compared with previous summers. She attributes it partly to not having had a chance to recover. “It’s been a really exhausting time,” she says. “When I am poorly I still have to look after the children. Because of Covid, a lot of plans and events were put off and now we’ve had a lot of things going on, so it feels like there’s never time to stop.”
Samaka has also noticed that she is ill more often since she had Covid in January, and wonders about the impact of that first infection on her immune system. It’s a theory yet to be proven, but according to Harghandiwal, scientists are exploring the possibility. Early research has found that abnormalities in immune cells may be contributing to long Covid, which is estimated to affect more than 2 million people in the UK. “Even in mild cases of the disease, changes to immune function can happen. We used to see people with chronic fatigue syndrome getting repeated infections. Now the same symptoms are caused by Covid, which is a lot more prevalent,” says Harghandiwal.
Dr Chris Ritchieson, a Cheshire GP, has also noticed a pattern of increased “winter” ailments in the north of England. While these illnesses can make healthy adults and older children very unwell for a few days, they usually get better on their own. For babies, older people and anyone who is immunocompromised, the risks are greater.
Social mixing is important for people kept apart in lockdown, but there are small steps everyone can take to reduce the risk of contracting and passing these viruses on. “Wearing masks on public transport and in crowds really helped to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses,” he says. “Meanwhile, hand-washing is important for the prevention of norovirus [winter vomiting bug]. Some stomach bugs are resistant to hand sanitiser but a thorough wash with soap and warm water is very effective at getting rid of these germs. A lot of people don’t wash their hands properly before they eat or handle food.”
Increasingly relaxed attitudes towards hygiene and common viruses are not just due to pandemic fatigue – they have been developing for decades. “Before routine vaccination there were higher rates of scarier illness and fewer treatments, so the public were more aware and perhaps took public health more seriously. However, we do still see a small but significant number of children and vulnerable people hospitalised with respiratory and vomiting viruses. They are definitely still a concern.”
People may unknowingly transmit serious illness when they are unwell. “Whooping cough and RSV, both of which can be very dangerous for babies, have been on the rise across the population for some time,” he says. “Because people aren’t looking for these and they often start with mild symptoms, they assume it’s a cold and continue to mix. If people have the option to work at home when they feel mildly unwell, or take time off, it could help to reduce the spread of illness and the risk for young and vulnerable people.”