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Incidents of influenza and the common cold dropped dramatically during the 2020-2021 season, but as coronavirus precautions begin to relax the numbers are likely to trickle back up.

With individuals hyper focused on handwashing, masking and distancing during the past year, and some high spread areas such as schools and workplaces closed, colds and flus were greatly minimized, with the CDC reporting around 600 influenza deaths last fall and winter, vs. around 22,000 in the 2019-2020 season.

Locally and nationally, cases of RSV — respiratory syncytial virus — also lessened, but an uptick in out of season infections among youth is occurring in the South, with the CDC seeing increased reports from the National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System. Cold and flu may follow suit.

In the La Crosse area, Mayo Clinic Health System medical resident Dr. Michael Bassett has not yet seen a prevalence of summer colds or viruses, but says in an increased incidence is likely, noting we are "social creatures — we're shaking hands, we're giving hugs," especially now that many COVID restrictions have lifted and more are congregating.

While some states are seeing a spike due to the Delta variant, COVID-19 cases remain low in the Coulee Region, but for those who are experiencing respiratory symptoms differentiating the coronavirus from the cold can be difficult.

"COVID stems from a virus that has been causing the common cold for centuries now. This is a very problematic strain that has developed," says Bassett. "It's been notoriously different for us to distinguish between the two — they present with very similar symptoms."

Common colds typically stay in the upper respiratory tract and are characterized by sneezing, coughing, congestion, sore throat and runny nose, while COVID can also result in fever, nausea, diarrhea, and body aches. Getting tested for the coronavirus is recommended if you are experiencing any signs, especially if you haven't been vaccinated. Regardless of the type of virus, coronavirus precautions are urged.

"Hand hygiene, masking — still be smart. If you do have symptoms you are likely shedding little virus particles," Bassett says. "Isolate yourself from healthy people, especially vulnerable populations," including the elderly, babies and immunocompromised persons. "If you're showing symptoms, be kind, be gracious to others. Don't go out touching things. Be mindful of your hand washing. It's OK to take a sick day from work."

Fortunately, Bassett says, the coronavirus hasn't made our bodies more susceptible to viral infection, calling our immune systems "evolutionary wonders" that "haven't weakened to the point of no return during the last 14 months."

Vaccination against the flu and, for those 12 and older, COVID-19 remains a key line of defense against viral infection. The 2029-2020 flu shot had a 45% overall efficacy rate, per the CDC, while the approved COVID vaccines offer up to 95% protection.

Bassett encourages all eligible person to be inoculated, noting as an added benefit the shots "help prime our immune system for potentially similar antigens in other viruses."

Emily Pyrek can be reached at