Explainer: What is the so-called ‘super-cold’ and how is it different to COVID-19?

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Ahead of the winter season, many residents in the UK have been plagued by a so-called ‘super-cold’ that is sweeping Britain and has left many feeling worse for wear.

Eighteen months of mask wearing, social distancing and successive COVID-19 lockdowns have been blamed for triggering a mass outbreak of what has been described as the “worst cold ever”, The Times has reported.

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The UK Health Security Agency has reported an increase in calls about colds and flu, a cough, or difficulty breathing above expected levels, especially in patients aged 15 to 44.

Since last month, increasing numbers of people have reported on social media symptoms ranging from sandpaper throats to muscle aches, with some saying their cold has left them exhausted or bedridden.

Are we seeing a super-cold?

Dr Philippa Kaye, a GP based in London, told the BBC that the main reason behind the numbers is because of the easing of coronavirus restrictions.

“We are mixing in a way that we haven’t been mixing over the past 18 months,” said Dr Philippa.

“During those first lockdowns, we saw numbers of other [non-Covid] infections fall. We think that that was primarily due to the restrictions on meeting up.”

Professor Neil Mabbott, an immunopathology expert at the University of Edinburgh, said the so-called ‘super-cold’ is likely to be no worse than normal – but it is hitting people harder because of a lack of immunity.

“Rather our immune systems have had limited exposure to colds over the past 18 months [during lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions] so our immunity to these diseases will have waned during this period and will be less effective against colds than would be expected normally.”

Data from Royal College of General Practitioners shows that incidence of the common cold is considerably higher this year – about a third higher than this time last year.

The incidence rate was at 3.1 per 100,000 people in the week ending 3 October, compared with 2.1 in the week ending October 4, 2020.

Why are there increased cases of colds now?

Increasing reports of bad colds and flu highlight “the power of the lockdown, mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitation measures introduced in response” to the pandemic, Profesor Mabbott added.

“Not only was this very effective in reducing transmission of the coronavirus within the community, but at the same time it had the additional benefit of reducing the spread of colds and other common transmissible diseases.”

As the measures eased and people began mixing indoors and traveling on public transport, levels of cold and other respiratory diseases were going to rise naturally.

How can you spot the difference between a ‘super-cold’ and COVID-19?

Experts have warned against self-diagnosing and urged sufferers to take a COVID-19 test if they are experiencing a cough, temperature or loss of taste and smell.

“If you have any symptoms of respiratory infection you should stay at home to prevent transmission and get a test done for COVID-19 to rule in or out,” said Alan McNally, professor of microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham.

“Trying to self-diagnose is a surefire way to send COVID-19 case rates soaring again.”

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What should you do?

For most people with a cold, plenty of fluids and paracetamol should help ease the symptoms, according to experts.

Self-isolating shouldn’t be necessary if you’ve ruled out COVID-19 or are not exhibiting the same symptoms.

Read more:

Tough winter could be coming with resurgent COVID-19

Flu vaccine could help reduce COVID-19 symptoms: Study

Experts predict ‘severe’ flu season once COVID-19 restrictions relaxed