Colds, flu and allergies are increasing as mask mandates lift, say experts

A woman helps a toddler blow his nose.
Experts say to expect more colds and other respiratory issues to rise now that mask mandates have fallen across the country. (Getty Images)

You might want to get your tissues handy. Now that the mask mandates have lifted across much of the U.S., people may find some unwelcome visitors showing up more often — namely, colds, seasonal allergies and the flu.

Along with social distancing and avoiding mass gatherings, “masking played a crucial role in reducing the transmission of not only COVID, but other respiratory infections including the flu,” Dr. Mahdee Sobhanie, an infectious disease physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “We are beginning to see an increase in cases of flu in certain parts of the nation, and the decreased use of masking can certainly be contributing to this.”

Cory Fisher, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic Foundation, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “With the expiration of mask mandates and reengagement with social interactions, we’re seeing a lot more seasonal viral infections and influenza. These were much less frequently seen in the early part of the COVID pandemic. Allergies were also less symptomatic for diligent mask wearers, but I’m seeing more of this also.”

That’s because masks provide “a barrier to prevent infections passing from one person to another,” explains Sobhanie. He adds: “Now that there has been a drop in masking, we are seeing an increase in all sorts of respiratory viruses.”

Sobhanie points out that flu transmission, for example, was at an “all-time low” when there was social distancing and masking. “So it is expected to increase when these measures have gone away,” he says.

Parents of young children who are in day care or at school where masks are optional may also find their kids bringing home more colds than earlier in the pandemic. “I would expect much more seasonal illness now that less and less students are wearing masks,” says Fisher.

Video: Getting COVID and flu at same time can double risk of dying

Is it a cold, COVID, the flu or allergies?

Pre-COVID, few people would have thought twice about a sniffly nose or a sore throat, but getting sick during the pandemic can leave you wondering whether it’s COVID or just a cold.

“I think all of us have woken up in the morning with some stuffiness and sore throat and thought, ‘Am I sick?’” says Sobhanie.

The fact that symptoms from respiratory illnesses can overlap only makes matters more complicated. “The symptoms of influenza, a common cold and COVID can be very similar,” says Fisher, adding that in some cases “it is difficult to tell the difference without a test.”

That’s especially true when it comes to COVID and flu symptoms. “They both are associated with fevers, muscle aches and pains, stuffy and runny nose,” explains Sobhanie. “This is why if you have a fever, you should get yourself tested for either COVID or the flu.”

Common colds, however, generally start with a scratchy throat and then turn into congestion and cough, notes Fisher. Colds can also cause a runny or stuffy nose, “but you tend not to have a fever, muscle aches or pain,” points out Sobhanie.

Allergies, on the other hand, tend to cause itchy and watery eyes and nose, along with sneezing. But these symptoms tend to clear up with allergy medication, notes Sobhanie.

“Because there is so much crossover symptoms between flu and COVID, it is important to get tested to see which you have and to be treated quickly and appropriately,” says Sobhanie, who suggests keeping “your home testing kits handy and don’t get rid of those masks just yet.”

If you have the flu, Sobhanie explains that there are two antiviral medications to treat influenza. For COVID, there are two antiviral medications available, along with monoclonal antibodies that can be provided as an infusion, he notes.

If you test positive for either the flu or COVID, Sobhanie recommends calling your doctor to see which treatment options are available to you.

How to protect your health

As more and more people stop wearing masks, experts say there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of picking up one of these respiratory illnesses. “One of the things that is still important to continue is commonsense things we did before COVID, such as washing your hands, covering your cough or sneeze with your sleeve and avoiding touching your face,” says Sobhanie. “Also, if you are sick it is best to avoid others so they won’t get sick.”

It’s also important to be aware of how much COVID transmission is happening in your area “and if you were at a gathering where you could have been exposed,” says Sobhanie. You can find out whether COVID levels are high, medium or low in your specific county and state by accessing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s geographical data tracker.

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