How Long Before Our Immune Systems Recover From COVID?
There's good news and bad news, according to two physicians.
With life largely returning to "normal" for most people post-pandemic (hard to believe March marks three years since the start!), the most unwelcome party guest has been all the other f*cking germs that decided to show up and never leave. As COVID continued to circulate, it seemed like every other illness returned with a vengeance, knocking out members of your household like a sadistic game of whack-a-mole that never seems to end.
So, what gives? Why are even garden variety colds taking us down for weeks on end these days? And will our immune systems ever reset back to 2019, or are we just doomed to face illness after illness for the foreseeable future? Two physicians give Scary Mommy the lowdown on what's going on and what to expect going forward.
A Perfect Storm of Sickness
The same measures that helped keep us from spreading COVID in the past few years (such as masking and isolating) also shielded us from spreading other viral illnesses, with children among the most impacted by this lack of virus exposure, as pediatric infectious disease physician Dr. Asif Noor tells Scary Mommy. "Cocooning did not let our children be exposed to common viruses early in life. This resulted in a relatively naïve immune system at an individual and population level."
So when we began removing masks and resuming pre-COVID routines, it makes sense why kids were suddenly faced with an onslaught of cold, flu, RSV, norovirus — you name it, they brought it home. Generally speaking, "Most infections result in future protection through antibodies and trained T-cells, the two important immune system components," says Noor. "This immunity shields kids against future infection from the same or similar viruses. Additionally, immunity in the population provides a cushion to our kids. The COVID quarantine deprived kids of training their immune systems from virus exposure and weakened the protective shield of population immunity."
Noor notes that all these viruses were still around during peak COVID, but "social distancing kept these viruses at bay. After lifting quarantine and masking at schools and communities, we saw a spring back effect: a higher-than-expected rate of infections, particularly in the winter of 2022-23."
Even though this current crop of viral infections feels like it's taking us down with a fierceness, it's probably just because we'd forgotten what it felt like to get sick, says Dr. Roger Seheult, an internal medicine physician and a medical advisor for Intrivo, the developer of On/Go rapid COVID-19 tests. "While it may feel like the common cold and other mild illnesses are more severe, this might be because of the fact that we have not had them in some period of time. There is no evidence that colds are now more severe than they used to be." Seheult also attributes the recent uptick in respiratory-related hospitalizations to wider circulation and not illness severity, per se.
This is also why older children have gotten illnesses they'd typically get early on in life, says Noor. "For example, rotavirus typically affects infants less than one year of age. After COVID, we have seen cases in toddlers and school-aged children."
There's good news and bad news on the immunity front going forward, as both docs explain. First, the bad news: "We can anticipate a tough few viral seasons before returning to traditional seasonality in the upcoming years," says Noor. "The post-COVID viral season was long and challenging — however, it filled the immunity gap and helped better defend against future infections."
"With behavior returning to normal, I expect these viral infections to reach a steady state comparable to what we have seen in the past," adds Seheult. He notes that it's an excellent opportunity to focus on immune-boosting behaviors, such as getting enough sleep, reducing stress wherever possible, exercising, drinking plenty of water, and spending time outside.
The COVID Question
Of course, we'd be remiss not to mention that COVID is still around, and it's not fully clear just yet how multiple COVID infections might impact our immune systems in the long run. Noor seems optimistic about kids, noting, "Multiple infections do not overwhelm the immune system. On the contrary, it boosts kids' immune systems."
For adults, Seheult says, "While SARS-CoV-2 (aka the virus that causes COVID-19) has the ability to temporarily suppress the immune system during a current infection, there does not seem to be clinical evidence that this suppression carries over to other infections. A few studies have shown there is a reduction in T-cell immunity after infection, especially in older patients. However, the majority of these abnormalities returned to normal within three months."
Seheult recommends using your own personal risk factors as a guide, especially if you have battled COVID multiple times. The same precautionary measures — avoiding large gatherings where infected people might be present, handwashing, wearing a mask, and avoiding enclosed spaces — are still the gold standard for preventing illness of any kind, he says.
"When it comes to the immune system, some believe it is similar to a muscle — either a person can use it or lose it," says Seheult, "especially since masking or social distancing significantly reduces the amount of virus exposure in the general population, making the communal immune system less robust." Hopefully, things will return to normal once we're off the viral rollercoaster we never wanted to ride, but for now, take comfort in knowing that you're doing the best you can to make it to the other side. And whenever you need to scream, cry, sing, or take some deep breaths, the Target parking lot is always there waiting for you, Mama. You're doing great, we promise.