If you’re like most Americans, someone in your family or social circle is currently sick with COVID, the flu, a cold, or RSV. With the waves of illness hitting many homes, some people are wondering: could I have caught more than one of these germs at the same time?
The answer is: Yes, it can happen. There is plenty of evidence of people testing positive for, say, COVID and influenza or influenza and RSV simultaneously.
“Absolutely, you can catch more than one virus at the same time,” says Dr. Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Northwestern University.
“We’ve had kids who actually had three different viruses. Some of them come in with RSV. They’ve also had influenza and enterovirus. There have been other kids who have presented with COVID and influenza.”
The risk of multiple infections is particularly high this year as many viruses have flocked together.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm for co-infections,” Tan says.
It’s unclear how often this happens, as most testing for this sort of thing is done on hospitalized patients, which likely aren’t representative of the general public. But some studies have found co-infections in up to 20% of these patients.
The risk, however, does not seem to be the same for everyone. According to the researchers, children seem to be much more likely to catch more than one insect above the other, especially very young children.
“About 20% of infants under six months of age hospitalized with influenza had RSV co-infection,” says Dr. Shikha Garg, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number drops to around 13% for children aged six months to 2 years and less than 5% for children aged 5 and over.
Why children are more prone to co-infections is unclear, but there are theories.
“It could just be because they’re constantly exposed to respiratory infections,” says Amanda Jamieson, who studies viruses at Brown University. “But it could also be that their immune system just hasn’t developed the immunity of old people.”
That said, co-infections can occur at any age, especially in the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
At the same time, there is growing evidence that co-infections can be more serious than just getting sick with one virus at a time. In fact, a new CDC study released Wednesday finds that it is.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, involving more than 4,000 hospitalized children, those who had COVID plus another virus, such as a cold virus, were much more likely to need oxygen to help them breathe and to require intensive care.
“We found that children under five were about twice as likely to have severe disease when they had a [
The findings underscore the importance of testing hospitalized patients for respiratory infections to ensure they are getting the right treatment, Agathis says.
It’s not entirely clear why co-infections would be more severe, but it could be because multiple infections cause more inflammation and different respiratory viruses damage the lungs in different ways.
“It’s almost like getting more than one punch, and it can make you even sicker,” says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.
The best thing people can do to reduce risk is everything people have done in recent years to protect themselves from infection during the pandemic: get the COVID and flu vaccine; wash your hands a lot; and wear a mask in crowded, poorly ventilated areas and around sick people.
“Getting immunized with flu and SARS-CoV2 vaccines and keeping up to date with it is key to protecting children as well as community and family members,” says Dr. Fiona Havers, medical epidemiologist at the CDC. “Staying home when you are sick is essential.”
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