Cold & Flu Season Is Surging Early This Year, Confirms A Pediatrician

If your household has been battling some form of illness or another without a freaking break for what feels like forever, you’re far from alone. Back-to-school season and the advent of cooler weather always brings with it an uptick in illness — particularly among kids. But it feels like this year has been especially brutal, thanks to the converging rise in cases not only of cold and flu but also respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD), and, of course, COVID-19.

There’s a lot going around right now, from the common cold and classic sore throat to more scary viruses, and we honestly don’t blame you for both wanting to keep your kids in a bubble suit and also wanting to run away, never to return. Add to the mix terrifying headlines about a “tripledemic” with children’s hospitals hitting capacity around the country due to an onslaught of respiratory illnesses, and it can simply feel like too much to handle.

So is this cold/flu/everything else season actually worse, or does it just seem that way because of the varying viruses that are currently circulating? A pediatric specialist gave Scary Mommy the scoop.

It’s not just you — everything peaked earlier this year.

Whether it’s a runny nose, a sore throat, a stomach bug, or all of the above, if it feels like your kid can’t catch a break this year, it’s because seasonal respiratory viruses have peaked way earlier than normal. Explains Sara Siddiqui, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Langone’s Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital in New York, “The fall and winter seasons are usually notorious for seasonal respiratory viruses like rhinovirus, enterovirus, influenza, parainfluenza, and RSV.” She adds that although these viral illnesses “tend to occur most commonly from October to March,” we seem to be experiencing “a high point currently, whereas usually, we reach a peak closer to January.”

And if it seems like younger kids (babies and toddlers) are bearing the brunt of the illnesses lately, it’s possibly due to those early immune-building stages of their little lives being shaped differently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Masking, social distancing, and remote learning to shield against COVID — practices which dominated the better part of 2020 and 2021 — have all but fallen by the wayside, which means that the breeding ground for other viruses to pick back up is plowing through, full steam ahead.

In the past few years, “we saw milder than normal respiratory viral illness, which could have been because COVID seemed to be the primary circulating virus,” says Siddiqui. “Masking and overall precautions may have limited the spread of other viral illnesses as well. Now that we are returning to “normal,” we are seeing a large return in all other types of respiratory and other viral illnesses.”

Unfortunately, though, health experts can’t exactly pinpoint why cold and flu season is arriving early and with a vengeance this fall as opposed to years past, says Siddiqui. “The hypothesis is that COVID may have been the predominant viral illness suppressing the spread of other viruses temporarily.” Still, it’s a pattern that has existed even pre-pandemic, with Siddiqui adding, “We have seen other years with increased respiratory viral illnesses, along with increased spread of influenza, where it seemed ‘everyone’ was having symptoms of cough and congestion.”

OK, so what are we supposed to do?

Aside from silently weeping or suppressing a scream into your pillow each day (which we fully support you doing, if need be!), what can parents do to get through the season with their sanity intact?

On a personal level, there are plenty of actionable steps you can take to keep you and your household safe and (hopefully!) mitigate illness. “It is still important to note that hand washing, coughing into the arm, and staying home when feeling unwell (especially with a fever) will help reduce the spread of illness,” says Siddiqui. “Supporting the immune system with proper diet and activity, maintaining hydration, good sleep hygiene, and staying up-to-date on eligible vaccines will also help to reduce spread.”

Siddiqui also notes that policy decisions such as improving ventilation and requiring universal masking in public areas like hospitals and doctors’ offices are important to protect the immune systems of young infants, immunocompromised patients, and the elderly. But, of course, it’s not always easy to control the environment you and/or your children are in.

“Parents should continue to recommend frequent hand washing, especially prior to meals, to their children,” says Siddiqui. “Teaching children to avoid touching their face — especially the mouth, nose, and eye areas — helps to reduce the spread of viral and bacterial illness. Keeping children (and adults) home when sick or with fever is a good way to reduce spread in school and office settings.”

At any time, for any reason, checking in with your child’s doctor is never a bad idea, she adds. “Encouraging communication with your pediatrician to ensure early diagnosis and treatment options in order to return to health quickly is a great way to reduce the spread of illness as well.” No matter what, though, you will get through this — and things will get better in time.

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