Health Team

Common cold, flu to make a comeback as people stop wearing masks, experts say

As people start to drop their masks and return to "normal," health experts say that means we're going to be dealing with coughs, colds and flus.

Posted Updated

Amanda Lamb
, WRAL reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — As people start to drop their masks and return to normal, we'll be dealing with more coughs, colds and flus, health experts say.

Face masks protect us from nearly every disease. Now, as we drop the mask, we will be vulnerable again.

Doctors say the right thing to do will be to wear a mask when you are sick, even with a cold, to protect others.

The percentage of people testing positive for the flu across the US in the week ending on May 15 remained "unusually low," the CDC reports.

“If there was a silver lining to COVID, it was the masking that we were doing and we saw that during our traditional kind of flu season, there were virtually no cases of flu because of all the things that we were doing for COVID," said Dr. Sachin Gupta with UNC Health.

US influenza cases have decreased by 85% due to people wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands. The US hospitalization rate this past flu year was only .7 per 100,000 people. That's the lowest hospitalization rate the CDC has reported since 2005.

"This last year when we were masking for COVID we saw virtually no flu or common cold," Gupta said.

Ryan Watts, a Raleigh resident, said he'd consider wearing a mask to prevent the flu.

"Next winter, when the germs come back out, I will consider wearing it because flu season was non-existent," he said.

Health experts say school closures and working from home were a large factor in diminishing the spread of the flu. In the week ending on May 15, five flu deaths were reported across the country. By comparison, 1,094 people died of coronavirus during that week.

“That's what the whole messaging behind the masking was. It's not only there to protect yourself, it's to protect other people," Gupta said. "So, it's certainly not something that's part of our traditional culture here in the United States to be wearing a mask when you're sick.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said that mask-wearing could be seasonal after the pandemic is over.

“People have gotten used to the fact that wearing masks, clearly if you look at the data it diminishes respiratory diseases,” Fauci said during an interview on “Meet the Press.”

In some countries, Gupta said, it's typical for people to wear a mask when they are sick with a cold. But Gupta believes that the idea of masking up regularly would be a "hard sell" in the United States.

Mercedes Reyna, a childcare provider, believes that masks do make a difference.

"The kids didn't even get a cold because we were all wearing masks," she said.

Regardless, many people are eager to rip the mask off and take the risk.

"I'm just happy to not have to wear the mask, honestly. If I get sick, hopefully it won't be that bad," said childcare provider Pauline Mattes.

Does masking up affect your immune system?

Even though we've been taking more precautions against disease, it won't affect our immune system. There is not a chance that general immunity could be decreased because people wear masks more frequently, Gupta said.

"Our immune system doesn't really adapt and evolve that quickly. It really takes time," he said.

People's immune systems have a strong memory, Gupta said.

Will there be more vaccines in our future?

Since flu cases will be rising, it's important to get vaccinated against the flu, Gupta said.

Potentially, a COVID booster shot could be in the future for many people who are already vaccinated.

Experts estimate immunity against the coronavirus may diminish after about a year or so. It's unknown at this time how long COVID-19 vaccines give people immunity.

Americans should prepare to have a coronavirus booster shot within a year, experts say.


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