Over the past few days, social media has been abuzz with reports of “a new kind of viral infection”, with the main symptom being a lingering cough, that is affecting people across India.
One tweet in particular, by author Sanjeev Sanyal, went viral on Monday, 27 February, at a time when thousands across several cities in India reported illness.
Sanyal’s tweet read, “A really vicious cold bug has spread all over India (and the world). Almost everyone I know – including myself — has had a bad throat infection that then lingers for days as a chest congestion. Very annoying.”
A really vicious cold bug has spread all over India (and the world). Almost everyone I know – including myself – has had a bad throat infection that then lingers for days as a chest congestion. Very annoying.
— Sanjeev Sanyal (@sanjeevsanyal) February 27, 2023
Nation-wide illness again?
Many responded to this tweet, sharing their experiences of falling ill with symptoms such as cough, cold, and fever, and all wondering what the possible reason for this could be.
Interestingly, it’s not just limited to one city or state — tweets have been coming in from people living in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Mumbai, Delhi, and so on.
“Every 5th person I am meeting in Bangalore has a bad throat, cough, and cold. It seems recovery is taking 3 weeks for a common cold/viral. What’s wrong, is it the pollen? Change in climate or anything else & in other cities also?” tweeted Sajjan Raj Mehta from Bengaluru.
Every 5th person I am meeting in Bangalore has a bad throat, cough & cold. it seems recovery is taking 3 weeks for a common cold/viral*
*What’s wrong, is it the pollen ? Change in climate or anything else & in other cities also?
— Sajjan Raj Mehta (@sajjanrajmehta) February 28, 2023
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Why are people falling sick?
Several people on Twitter reported that every relative, friend or acquaintance around them has complained of a more aggressive and long-lasting seasonal flu, more so than usual.
They also mentioned that in this viral infection, many did not get fever spikes but had other symptoms such as throat pain, severe cough, worsening congestion which lingered for more than three weeks.
Amongst the most specified symptoms are persistent dry cough for up to a few weeks, leading to black-outs in some people. Those with known lung and heart conditions are experiencing severe illness, leading to hospitalisation with pneumonia.
While there has been no specific reason given by experts, doctors South First spoke to explained some of the possible reasons for this kind of illness.
Senior Consultant of Internal Medicine at Aster CMI Hospital in Bengaluru, Dr Bindumathi PL told South First that at Aster Hosptals, they have noticed a 70 percent increase in cases.
Meanwhile Dr Vijay Kumar CH, pediatrician from ESI Hospital in Balanagar, Hyderabad, who himself has a wheezing cough, said, “I have never had a wheezing cough in my 43 years of life. Shocked to know that I was diagnosed with obstructive lung disease when we did the pulmonary function test. I’ve had this wheeze cough for the last five weeks.”
Swine flu, flu, seasonal influenza
Amongst the 70 percent rise in influenza cases, Dr Bindumathi said that swine flu occurrences amongst patients aged 25 and above have also gone up.
Dr Ravindra Mehta, Pulmonologist from Apollo Hospital, Bengaluru, said that along with seasonal influenza, there are also several viruses that are behind this sudden increase in the number of people falling sick.
An increase in influenza A virus (H3N2) is being recorded in several cities across India, noted the doctors.
Meanwhile, Dr Sheela Murali Chakravarthy, Director of Internal Medicine at Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru, said that viruses in this season are usually influenza viruses that presents with symptoms of cold, cough, and fever.
Most of them are self-limiting diseases and few of the viruses tend to stay longer, she explained.
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Lowered/altered immunity post-Covid?
Dr Sagar Bhattad from Aster CMI Hospital attributed this phenomenal increase in cases to post-Covid altered immunity. This applies to both adults and children, he said.
Doctors explained that for the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an “immunity gap”, which means that there has been very less exposure to otherwise commonly-exposed viruses like RSV and influenza. People were wearing masks and were staying away from crowds too.
Now, with lowered immunity to these viruses, as well as masks not being worn as much, and an increase in movement of people in crowds, has increased the chances of people falling sick.
“They have not developed immunity to these diseases and, hence, are falling ill. Several people, including children, have not even taken their yearly flu vaccines. Also, mingling with people, children going to school, and so on, leads to the virus being brought home. If one person falls sick, others in the family will also fall sick. Immunity has waned and, hence, the increase in severity. Also, there are multiple virus strains out in the environment and it is not that one viral fever will give the person immunity to the other viruses,” explained Dr Vijayalakshmi, Infectious Disease specialists from SIMS Hospital, Chennai.
Agreeing with this, Dr Bindumathi added that due to Covid-19 being around, many other viruses were ignored and are now re-emerging.
New strains of viruses?
While there are a few cases of Covid-19 still seen in the country, doctors explained that this infection may not be Covid. However, testing for Covid-19 and ruling it out when symptoms are seen is ideal, they said.
Dr Bindumathi called for a study on new infections where abnormal patterns in the growth in the number of cases has been seen. “The symptoms are persisting longer than normal. You might call this a pattern we are now observing following Covid. New infections require study,” she explained.
Meanwhile, Dr Vijay also said that he has observed some post-Covid changes in patients. “Of them, the lungs of post-Covid patients have seen anatomical and physiological changes. This is seen even in asymptomatic patients,” he noted.
He also called for a study to check if there is any new Covid variant or newer flu strain that may be doing the rounds.
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Weather changes and air pollution
Some doctors also attributed it to fluctuations in weather and also the air quality index heading south.
Especially in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru, where it is transitioning from winter to summer, the hazardous weather fluctuations may also be causing an abnormal pattern in the increase in the number of people falling sick, noted doctors.
Dr Bindumathi explained, “Air pollution aggravates respiratory symptoms of cough, wheeze, and breathlessness.”
‘Many viral infections are self-limiting’
Assuring that most of the viral infections, even if persisting longer, are self-limiting conditions, doctors said that these viruses present with symptoms of illness at various degrees of severity.
While some having mild symptom with only fever and cold, some may experience high fever, cough with sputum, and breathlessness, which may even require hospitalisation.
Dr Bindumathi said, “The virus has the potential to cause a variety of symptoms — from moderate to severe — and consequences, particularly in vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those with underlying medical issues. It is however, less than Covid and spreads through the air.”
However, like Covid, doctors insist that rest and isolation is the key in these viral infections too. “If one person from a family gets it, then everyone in the house will catch the bug. School-going children or adults can refrain from meeting outside people for at least the first three days of the infection. Also, wearing a mask will prevent infection spread,” explained Dr Vijayalakshmi.
Doctors also insisted that people get the influenza vaccine every year. “A new set of viruses usually emerges in the month of July-August and it is advised to take the influenza vaccine for the year around that time. But if someone has not taken it last August, it is advisable for them to take the flu vaccine now,” Dr Vijayalakshmi explained.