Have you caught “the worst cold ever”? Recent days have seen high numbers of complaints about the flu-like cold that’s being described as a “super cold”, with GPs reporting an increase in patients describing Covid-like symptoms despite negative PCR tests. Figures from the UK Health Security Agency showed that 111 calls about colds and flu, a cough, or difficulty breathing are on the rise. The call volume is reported as being above expected levels, and there has been a particular increase from patients aged 15 to 44.
One such “super cold” sufferer is Jules Kelly. She can’t remember the last time she suffered from a bout of the sniffles and is regimented about eating a healthy diet and taking supplements to boost her immunity. But three weeks ago, she came down with debilitating flu-like symptoms that left her almost bed-ridden.
“It started with a sore throat and terrible sinus pain. Now, it feels like my head is made of sponge. It’s not just a cold, my body feels really weak and my legs feel like jelly,” she says. After temporarily disappearing for two days, Kelly’s cold came back with a vengeance – this time accompanied by a chesty cough. Given the severity of her symptoms, Kelly’s mind naturally jumped to Covid, but all three of her lateral flow tests came back negative.
“I’m double-vaxxed, but if it wasn’t for the negative tests I would think this was Covid. After three weeks, it hasn’t shown any signs of letting up,” she says.
Kelly isn’t the only one. In recent weeks, many people have reported experiencing severe flu-like symptoms, which have led experts to dub the unpleasant bug a “super cold”. Anecdotally, it has become known on social media as “the worst cold ever”. One of the first people to complain about the super cold was Oliver Roll, who took to Twitter two weeks ago to detail his illness. He wrote:
Ok seriously… anyone else been struck down by this non-Covid chest/sinus infection? It’s been 2 weeks and I’m exhausted. Very grateful Miss Rona hasn’t paid me a visit but this is something else. Never been this continually ill before 😩
— Oliver Roll (@oliroll11) September 18, 2021
The tweet received more than 15,400 likes, with many people responding with their own accounts of the dreaded malady.
In the pre-pandemic world, colds weren’t something to be taken seriously; it was quite common to suffer through a day’s work while blowing into a hanky or attend a meeting with streaming eyes. But anecdotally, simply getting through a day’s work with the super cold is near impossible. A call-out on social media revealed a range of symptoms, from “sandpaper throat” to “utter fatigue”. One individual responded to say she is on week five of the cold and has a cracked rib from all the coughing.
It is normal for common colds, and other respiratory tract infections, to spread quickly in September when the schools go back and autumn arrives, and Public Health England surveillance released this month showed that the number of people coming forward with common colds and other respiratory infections is rising, particularly among the under-15s, though cases are rising in older people too.
However, 18 months of Covid restrictions such as social distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitising may have increased our susceptibility to the common cold. Some experts are calling it an “immunity debt”, which happens when people who have not been exposed to normal levels of viruses and bacteria experience a surge in infections when coming in contact with a virus.
With this particularly nasty cold on the rise, here’s everything you need to know about it, from the reported symptoms to why it’s thought to be spreading.
What is the ‘super-cold’, and how is it different from a normal cold?
The common cold is caused by over 200 different strains of the virus. Prof Ronald Eccles, emeritus professor at Cardiff University and former director of the common cold centre, believes the “super cold” circulating at the moment is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The majority of people will have symptoms similar to a common cold but, in babies under two and the elderly, it can cause more severe illness. RSV is particularly common: 65 per cent of children will be infected with the virus by the age of one. By age three, this rises to 97 per cent of children.
One of the problems with RSV is that it’s highly contagious. It is transmissible through coughs and sneezes but, unlike coronavirus, it also spreads widely through hands and surfaces. This means it’s near impossible to stop the virus from spreading among children in classrooms. In July, the Academy of Medical Sciences warned that a host of respiratory viruses, including flu and RSV, could return in the winter and add to the strain of Covid on the NHS.
Many people with the super cold have reported experiencing longer illnesses than normal or, like Kelly, come down with additional symptoms after a brief period of recovery. As Zoe Broughton, a GP based in London, sees it, this could be because we are more susceptible to picking up a different cold virus during our recovery period. “It can feel like you have a never-ending cold when, in fact, you have just been unlucky and contracted two cold viruses back-to-back,” she adds.
What are the symptoms of the ‘super-cold’?
Sufferers of the “super-cold” report symptoms such as sinus and chest infections, coughing, sore throat, fatigue and loss of taste and smell. These symptoms are similar to those of Covid-19, but patients are not testing positive on PCR tests. Some patients with the so-called super-cold describe being bed bound for days.
Why is it thought to be circulating now?
Prof Eccles explains that months of lockdown have reduced our immunity to the viruses that cause common colds. “Normally, we are exposed to these viruses on a daily or weekly basis. But now we’re like athletes out of condition who haven’t trained for a year. We’ve suddenly got this virus and our immune system is overreacting to it,” he says. This could explain why so many people are suffering symptoms that feel more severe than those caused by a regular cold.
Usually, Prof Eccles says, we would build up immunity to cold viruses on both an individual and a community basis. “You would normally expect more than half of people to have been exposed to this virus in the last five or six months. Now, it’s come into the community when nobody has any immunity to it and it spreads like wildfire,” he says.
Broughton agrees, adding that our bodies don’t produce long-term immunity to the common cold. “Your level of immunity to a cold virus relies on your post-cold residual antibody levels – these decline fairly rapidly after initial exposure to a cold,” she says. “This means rather than perhaps getting a milder version of a cold, you get a full hit of the muscle aches, sore throat, snot and headache and all those other grim cold symptoms.”
Could it be Covid becoming endemic?
Might there be a chance that some people are experiencing a bout of Covid? It’s a possibility, says Prof Eccles, as most vaccinated people will experience mild symptoms that are similar to the common cold.
Last month, Dame Sarah Gilbert, the lead scientist behind the Oxford vaccine, said: “We normally see that viruses become less virulent as they circulate more easily and there is no reason to think we will have a more virulent version of Sars-CoV-2.” She added that there was a limit to which Covid-19 could mutate without losing its ability to spread – so “there aren’t many places for the virus to go”.
But Dr Ed Pooley, a Nottingham-based GP, says it's too early to say. “The reason I think it's too early to say is that for something to become endemic, it has to be generally of one specific type,” he explains. “If you have multiple variations of things it becomes harder to be endemic, and whilst there are still areas of the world that have relatively low vaccine uptake, you risk something called vaccine escape, where you get more severe forms of COVID or more variant forms. And so the more variants that you have, the reduced risk you have of something becoming endemic and more becoming, those sort of surges we see with, for instance, the Delta variant.”
The journal Nature recently found that 89 per cent of epidemiologists it surveyed think Covid will become endemic, meaning it will circulate constantly, probably for the rest of our lives. Yet it is still unclear what endemic Covid will look like exactly.
Should you get a Covid test for a cold?
Even if you're double-jabbed, it’s important to take a Covid test – especially if you’re in a role where you’re regularly exposed to lots of people.
For many people, loss of taste and smell is one of the defining symptoms of the illness. According to Professor Tim Spector, head of the ZOE Covid Symptom Study, anosmia is 10 times better than any other symptom at predicting Covid infection. If you have this symptom and are continuing to test negative, it might be worth taking a more accurate test such as a PCR.
Lateral flow tests have a five per cent false-negative rate in symptomatic people. In asymptomatic people, that figure is said to be roughly 40 per cent, according to an analysis in the British Medical Journal. Timing of the test could also play a part: last year, researchers from University College London found the accuracy of PCR tests dropped from 89 per cent to 54 per cent when patients waited longer than four days after the onset of symptoms to get tested. This is probably down to your viral load; it's easier to detect at high levels, which typically occur at the beginning of the infection.
How can I avoid catching it and how is it treated?
Aside from another lockdown, there isn’t much we can do to avoid catching the super cold. If you are unlucky enough to get ill, most cases can be treated with a combination of painkillers and rest. You can take paracetamol to ease the muscle pain, sore throat and headache, while a hot drink helps to alleviate the cough. Prof Eccles also recommends using a nasal decongestant spray to clear your nose so you can get a better night’s sleep.
Will the flu jab stop me from catching it?
Although it's a good idea to get the flu vaccine, it probably won't help with a cold. “The flu jab is inactivated flu virus particles that will reduce the infection risk with the flu virus," explains Dr Pooley. “Flu virus is different to most cold viruses; there may be a little bit of crossover, but I suspect it probably won't help.”