As winter approaches, you might be wondering why you're hearing about more people falling ill with common respiratory viruses. To understand this surge in illnesses, we need to dive into a concept called the "immunity gap."
So, what exactly is the immunity gap, and why is it causing an increase in viruses?
The Immunity Gap Explained
The immunity gap is a phenomenon that experts predicted would affect us this winter. Typically, seasonal respiratory viruses, like RSV, follow a predictable pattern by ramping up in late fall or early winter and tapering off as spring and summer arrive.
During the past few years, measures to combat COVID-19, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and increased handwashing, significantly reduced the spread of non-COVID respiratory infections and flu cases in both children and adults. However, this decrease in exposure also led to low or non-existent levels of circulating natural immunity. Even nursing mothers, who usually pass some passive immunity to their babies, have had less exposure to these viruses.
Now, with widespread COVID protective measures no longer in place, these viruses are making a comeback and infecting a vulnerable and non-protected population. Consequently, more infants, children, and adults are getting sick again, and this resurgence is occurring in larger numbers and earlier than expected.
One prime example of the immunity gap in action is RSV. Almost all children become infected with RSV by the age of 2. They spread it to others, and the virus continually circulates, providing ongoing immunity. However, most children born during the pandemic have not been exposed to RSV, resulting in a large population now becoming infected and contributing to the increasing number of cases.
Other Factors Contributing to Decreased Immunity
Aside from the immunity gap, there's another theory known as the "hygiene hypothesis." This suggests that the overly sterile environments created during the COVID pandemic might have reduced exposure to germs that are essential for stimulating the immune system. This deficiency in exposure could potentially make us more vulnerable to illness.
It remains uncertain if individuals contracting these viruses now will experience more severe symptoms due to the immunity gap. AIM doctors emphasize that immunocompromised individuals and the elderly are at the highest risk.
Health Tips to Prevent Viral Infections
While there's no surefire way to avoid viral infections, you can reduce your risk by following these health tips:
Avoid Sick Individuals: If someone around you is sick, try to limit your close contact with them.
Test for COVID: If you experience even mild upper respiratory symptoms, consider taking a home COVID test. Early identification can help prevent further spread.
Practice Good Hand Hygiene: Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating or touching your face.
Sanitize High-Traffic Areas: Keep high-touch surfaces in your home, like faucets and doorknobs, clean. Regular disinfection can help reduce germ transmission.
Remember that health is a precious asset, and taking preventive measures can go a long way in safeguarding yourself and those around you. Stay safe and stay well!