Why do colds and viruses seem so bad at the moment?

Woman with cold virus. (Getty Images)
Here's what's going on with colds and viruses right now. (Getty Images)

Got a cold you can't shake, or a virus that seems to keep coming back?

While it's no surprise winter is a breeding ground for sickness, it feels like everyone and their dog is complaining of the sniffles, coughing in work meetings, or laid up in bed at the moment.

Here, two NHS GPs explain to Yahoo UK exactly why that is, and what's really going on.

Why does it feel like everyone is sick at the moment?

"The effects of the recent cold weather and increased socialising indoors in the run up to Christmas have caused flu, COVID-19 and other infections to spread more easily and this has affected more people, causing the infections rates to increase," says Dr Hana Patel, NHS GP and GP medico-legal expert witness.

In a nutshell, the multiple viruses circulating and the frosty weather are the perfect storm for sickness, especially the type that feels more intense.

"People may be infected with more than one bacteria or virus at a time, and colds tend to be worse in the cold weather. Research shows that we do get more sick during the cold, winter months. The cold affects our cells that fight infections when we get a bug, and this means that our immunity is naturally lower in the cold and winter months," adds Dr Patel.

While the cold doesn't cause colds, it can affect our resistance to them. It's also thought rhinoviruses (which causes the common cold) may replicate more effectively below a certain temperature.

Sick young woman lying on the couch with her cute pet dog and blowing her nose. Ill woman lying on the sofa with high temperature.
We can be infected with more than one bacteria or virus at a time. (Getty Images)

Dr Dave Nichols, NHS GP and resident doctor at at-home testing brand, MyHealthChecked explains further: "The human body’s immune response, which is our bodies main response to fighting off infections, makes us more susceptible to the common cold and other respiratory infections at this time of year.

"Children are especially important in the transmission, acting as reservoirs for the infection as they have fewer antibodies and a more immature immune system making them more susceptible to the common cold."

What are the main viruses affecting us right now?

Dr Patel says there are high rates of three main viruses – the flu (the current reason for more hospital admissions), the JN.1 variant of Covid, and rhinovirus.

"Experts are monitoring the new variant JN.1 as it is known, with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) stating that it makes up around 7% of positive Covid tests analysed in a lab in the UK," he explains.

When it comes to children Dr Nichols saysthe return to school following the Christmas holidays often coincides with a rise in a number of respiratory illnesses including the common cold.

"Common symptoms include a cough, sore throat, nasal irritation, nasal discharge (rhinorrhoea), a fever or generalised malaise," he adds.

"Whilst the common cold can affect all population groups, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) report this to be far higher amongst children, with children experiencing an average of five to eight colds per year."

Molecular model of rhinovirus, the virus that causes common cold and rhinitis, 3D illustration
Model of rhinovirus, the virus that causes common cold and rhinitis. (Getty Images)

Why do people keep getting recurring colds/illnesses?

Feel like you've had a cold that just keeps returning? "It is probably different viruses attacking your immune system, not the same one," Dr Hana points out.

When asked whether our immunity is still not fully back to normal after the years we spent isolating and social distancing, with some experts pointing to an 'immunity debt', Dr Hana responds: "I would say more that we are being affected by more than one virus at a time rather." She does acknowledge, however, that "the pandemic has caused us to change our behaviours and not gather as much as before."

What increases our chance of getting the common cold?

"Having other pre-existing medical conditions, or reasons for low immunity such as diabetes," says Dr Hana.

Other common reasons include: "Not washing our hands, being around a lot of people who are unwell or certain professionals like doctors and teachers etc," the GP continues.

"In the winter months, people stay more indoors and are closer to each other, meaning germs are more likely to spread. With heating there is low humidity, which causes our nasal passages to be dry and be more susceptible to cold viruses."

Dr Nichols agrees: "Factors like weakened immunity, exposure to the virus, and poor health habits increase the likelihood of getting a cold."

Preschooler wiping nose with tissue
Constantly picking up bugs from your child's school? Sounds about right. (Getty Images)

He also explains why children are more affected: "Direct contact with the skin or hand contact with an infected object are key ways the virus is transmitted, which explains why the numbers seen amongst children are higher, as they are more likely to have close contact with each other in nursery and school."

This is also why adults who have regular contact with children seem to have colds more frequently too.

"Other ways the virus is spread include the inhalation of infected droplets, which becomes more likely in the colder weather where we spend longer periods indoors," Dr Nichols adds.

What can we do to help prevent colds and viruses and boost immunity?

"Eating a varied and balanced diet, and regular sustained exercise helps our immunity," says Dr Patel. "Also remember smoking and drinking excess alcohol can affect our immune system making us more likely to be susceptible to infections.

"Washing our hands helps spread germs and viruses to protect our immunity, as well as ensuring that you take regular vaccines that are offered by the NHS."

And, importantly, she adds: "Finally avoiding unnecessary antibiotics, as repeated use can make bacteria resistant to them."

See NHS guidance on what to do if you have a cold, covid, or the flu.