Severe common cold cases increasing among young children may be pegged to COVID-19 lockdowns

Doctors are noticing an increase in severe cases of the common cold among some children

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As children have headed back to school over these last few weeks, doctors have noticed an increase in severe cases of the common cold among some children from two of the most common viruses known to cause the upper respiratory infection: rhinoviruses and enteroviruses.

That's according to a recent report out of Chicago — though the situation isn't limited to that area. 

These viruses typically only cause mild upper respiratory symptoms in healthy adults.

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However, "we’ve seen a larger number of young children and infants with respiratory illnesses than we usually [see] in the summer — and more children with severe illness require hospital and ICU admissions," Dr. Czer Anthoney Lim, director of pediatric emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, told Fox News Digital. 

A child receives a checkup from a physician. 

A child receives a checkup from a physician. 

"What's been interesting is that we have had kind of a potpourri of viruses," Dr. Natalie Lambajian-Drummond of Yorkville, Ill., recently told CBS Chicago, adding that she even had to admit a child via ambulance.

While it’s possible to get a cold any time of the year, most colds occur during the winter and spring, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Common respiratory viruses

Many respiratory viruses can cause the common cold, but rhinoviruses are the most common, the CDC said.

Although there are many types of enteroviruses, most only cause mild illness, according to Cedars-Sinai’s website. 

Another respiratory virus that causes common cold symptoms is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), but it can cause serious disease in infants. 

These viruses typically occur mostly in the summer and fall, causing the "summer flu," but can cause other illnesses, such as a rash known as hand, foot and mouth disease. 

They mostly infect children because most adults have developed immunity to them, the website added.

Another respiratory virus that causes common cold symptoms is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), but it can cause serious disease in infants. 

A mom checks her sick daughter's throat. 

A mom checks her sick daughter's throat.  (iStock)

"Historically, respiratory syncytial virus season began sometime in the mid-to-late fall and would extend into the early spring," said Dr. Mike Smith, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Duke University School of Medicine.

"RSV can cause bronchiolitis — inflammation of the small airways — and cause problems breathing that require hospitalization for children in the first year of life."

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He told Fox News Digital that in some parts of the country, RSV season has already started this year.

"Children at higher risk of severe disease after RSV include those who were born prematurely (< 29 weeks gestational age) or have chronic lung disease, certain types of congenital heart disease, certain neuromuscular diseases and immunosuppression," he added.

He also reminded people that influenza, commonly called "the flu," is another common respiratory virus that comes each year. "Flu shots are now available for anyone 6 months and older, so it’s important to get protected," he said.

Common cold symptoms

Among the first symptoms of the common cold are sore throat and a runny nose, followed by coughing and sneezing, the CDC added.

Other symptoms may include headaches and body aches.

But most people get better in a week to 10 days, per the CDC.

A woman suffers from the common cold. Said Dr. Marc Siegel, a Fox News contributor, "When the masks came off and kids began to interact more, we began to see more of these infections even out of season [over the summer], some mild, some more severe."

A woman suffers from the common cold. Said Dr. Marc Siegel, a Fox News contributor, "When the masks came off and kids began to interact more, we began to see more of these infections even out of season [over the summer], some mild, some more severe." (iStock)

"Omicron is associated with more upper respiratory symptoms than previous variants," said Dr. Marc Siegel, a Fox News contributor and professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Siegel told Fox News Digital that this makes it harder to distinguish omicron from other upper respiratory infections, like rhinovirus, RSV and enteroviruses — especially in young children. 

"In fact, when the masks came off and kids began to interact more, we began to see more of these infections even out of season [over the summer], some mild, some more severe," he said. 

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This will now increase the possibility that other respiratory viruses are causing typical cold symptoms compared to the past two years — when many health care professionals "were associating every sore throat, every sinus infection, every cough with COVID," Siegel added.

Common cold and COVID-19 restrictions

Traditionally, the people who get severe illness, such as pneumonia, are those "with weakened immune systems, asthma or respiratory conditions," the CDC said.

But some young children’s immune systems have not built up the immunity to the common cold due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s restrictions.

When young kids are infected with the common cold from certain respiratory viruses, some may get more severe infections today, say medical professionals.

When young kids are infected with the common cold from certain respiratory viruses, some may get more severe infections today, say medical professionals. (iStock)

So when young children are infected with the common cold from certain respiratory viruses, some may get more severe infections. "I would say the children that are under 5 are kind of the group to watch," Lambajian-Drummond warned on CBS.

"A lot of the younger kids we're seeing them have been having a lot more severe courses when they get these viruses."

Some young children’s immune systems have not built up the immunity to the common cold due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s restrictions.

"There may be multiple explanations for this uptick, including COVID-19, enterovirus D68 and diminished innate immunity," added Lim, who is also an associate professor of emergency medicine, pediatrics and medical education at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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"Although COVID-19 in children generally presents as mild disease, a small number of children develop severe illness — with only 7% of children less than 5 years old vaccinated and movement towards mask optional at schools, this group becomes especially susceptible."

He also told Fox News Digital that limited opportunities for in-person child care and school have reduced exposure to common illnesses that can build innate immunity in young children.

Epidemiology

Each year millions of Americans get the common cold, with adults averaging 2-3 colds annually. But children usually have more infections, according to the CDC.

"Common colds are the main reason that children miss school and adults miss work," the CDC said on its website.

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There is no cure for the common cold, so treatment is directed at symptoms, per the CDC.

Prevention is key

To decrease the chance of getting a cold, the CDC recommends these simple tips: Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Avoid contact with sick people. And don’t touch the eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

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If you or your children have cold symptoms, the agency also recommends calling your doctor for the following reasons: symptoms that persist more than 10 days; unusual or severe symptoms, such as a fever or your child is lethargic; your child is less than 3 months of age.