Common cold cases rising: doctor weighs in on post-pandemic health precautions

Sick woman blowing her nose

As coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted across the country, doctors are seeing a rise in the common cold and flu, stomach bug and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). The transmission of other seasonally common viruses is likely to increase as public health recommendations related to COVID-19 become more relaxed.

But as Dr. Scott Joy, chief medical officer of physician services at HCA Healthcare’s HealthONE in Colorado, told NBC Nightly News, this isn’t because our immune systems are weaker after more than a year of masking and social distancing; it’s because viral infections now have more opportunity to transfer from person to person as we end preventive COVID-19 measures. He notes that common viruses have been limited in transmission from person and person during the pandemic because of all our vigilance in mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

Remember the three Ws

Typically peaking between December and February each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010. But, this past season, flu cases were dramatically low and likely mitigated by COVID-19 preventative response.

Further, cases of RSV, which normally puts nearly 60,000 children under age 5 in the hospital during wintertime, were virtually nonexistent.

Fast forward to summer 2021. As COVID-19 avoidance strategies are relaxed, restaurants open and people return to work and school in-person, experts expect respiratory viruses to continue to circulate broadly.

Dr. Joy encourages the public to continue practicing the three Ws to stop the spread of cold and flu:

  • Wear a mask indoors at large gatherings.
  • Watch your distance from other people.
  • Wash your hands.

Dr. Joy also recommends not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

Cold and flu symptoms  

The Denver-based physician says it’s important to not ignore symptoms and remain vigilant. You’re likely not going to want to return to work or social life, no matter your vaccination status, with common cold symptoms. Dr. Joy recommends getting tested for COVID-19 if you have cold or flu symptoms, even if you’re fully vaccinated, because it’s important to prove it’s not COVID-19 instead of just thinking it’s not. Knowing your acute COVID-19 status when you have symptoms helps you to better understand when you need to stay isolated to prevent an increase in COVID-19 in your community.

According to the CDC, cold symptoms usually include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Body aches

Flu symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny
  • Stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (more common in children than adults)

It can be difficult to tell if you have a cold or the flu on your own because the symptoms are so similar, but in general, flu symptoms are more intense and people are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose with a cold. It can also be challenging to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19 based on symptoms alone.

Cold, flu treatment

If you have a cold, getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids is important. There is no cure for a cold, but over-the-counter medicines may help ease symptoms. If your symptoms last more than 10 days, are severe or unusual, or if your child is younger than 3 months and has a fever or is lethargic, you should see a doctor.

For those with the flu, antiviral drugs may be available, although most cases are mild and medical care or antiviral drugs are not needed. Just like with a cold, it’s important to get plenty of rest and drink lots of water, and avoid close contact with other people. Call your doctor if you get very sick, are pregnant, are 65 or older, or are in other ways at high risk of serious flu complications.


Dr. Joy’s bottom line: if you are not feeling well, don’t go in to work, stay away from large gatherings and avoid close contact with others until you can rule out COVID-19. If you’re experiencing emergency warning signs, including trouble breathing, call 911 and seek emergency medical care immediately.

Dr. Scott Joy being interviewed by NBC Nightly News.
Dr. Scott Joy, chief medical officer of physician services at HCA Healthcare’s HealthONE in Colorado, discusses why common colds are on the rise on NBC Nightly News.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 182 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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