Brenda Zollitsch and her kids, Veronica and Zachary George. Recently, their Portland household had a bout with the common cold that felt distinctly uncommon. Credit: Courtesy of Brenda Zollitsch

After a year with minimal cases of influenza and other respiratory viruses, including the ones that cause the common cold, they have come back with a vengeance, taxing immune systems and often causing stress to people who have perhaps been primed for health-related anxiety since the pandemic began.

Stephanie Panella, a family nurse practitioner at Husson Family Medicine in Bangor, also works at the Northern Light Respiratory Assessment Clinic on Union Street. Since April and May, she said, she has seen a “huge influx” of respiratory virus illnesses.

“It came quicker and sooner than we ever expected, which was very unusual,” she said. “The common cold is coming back around.”

The Zollitsch-George family knows this well.

Last December, they all got COVID-19. The viral disease hit Brenda Zollitsch, 51, of Portland so hard that she spent five days on oxygen in the hospital.

It was scary.

It took Zollitsch 10 months to feel healthy again, a state she isn’t taking for granted. So early last month, when her husband, Harold George, fell ill with a low-grade fever, a headache, a head cold and a sore throat — the same symptoms he had a year ago —  the family didn’t take any chances.  

“The house went into lockdown,” she said. “We were pretty sure he had COVID … It kind of strikes fear in your heart.”

But four COVID tests, including the most-accurate PCR test, showed that George did not have the disease.

He had a cold.  

Still, the family and many others Mainers will attest that in 2021, there’s nothing common about the common cold. When the pandemic began in March 2020, lots of people took precautions that included wearing masks, staying home as much as possible and keeping a distance from other people.

George’s cold had consequences. He works in food service for a nursing home and stayed home from his job for four days. He also felt worse than he remembered from similar illnesses in pre-pandemic days.

“This cold, it seems to me, is different than ordinary colds. I don’t know what this thing was — it’s meaner than a regular cold,” Zollitsch said.

There are also things to consider in addition to the physical symptoms, she said.

“Now you just have to be so careful. We have to think: can the kids go to school, can they not go to school,” she said. “It’s super-disruptive to life, that something in the past you would never have thought about is now like, ‘We don’t want to kill people.’”

Brenda Zollitsch, Harold George and their kids, Veronica and Zach George on a warm-weather holiday outing. The Portland family, which endured COVID-19 a year ago, recently had a bout with the common cold that felt much more serious than it used to feel. Credit: Courtesy of Brenda Zollitsch

Panella said that while SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is the virus people are most worried about, it’s not the only virus that can affect our immune systems and bodies.

“I have seen a large instance of people who are just sick,” she said.

One reason why, Panella speculates, is because of all the time that people were just not exposed to as many viruses and germs as usual.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, preliminary estimates for the flu season that ran from Oct. 2020 to May 2021 showed a dramatic decrease in flu activity. During that time, only 0.2 percent of respiratory specimens tested by U.S. clinical laboratories were positive for flu. In the previous three flu seasons, positive flu tests peaked between 26.2 percent and 30.3 percent.

“There was a lack of exposure and our immune systems just don’t have as many antibodies as we used to have,” Panella said. “So our immune systems took a vacation. And now they’re being exposed again, and they’re being hit hard. People are getting more severe symptoms because our immune systems are working harder than usual.”

Elizabeth Garber, an acupuncturist and writer from Belfast, can attest to the fact that symptoms seem much worse than they ever did for the common cold. Last year, she never got sick at all.

“It was amazing,” she said.

But this year, that changed. In October, she had been caring for her young grandchildren, who had drippy noses, and one morning she woke up with a scratchy throat.

“Suddenly, I was so sick,” she said. “It started with a scratchy cold, and it just kept getting worse every day. Coughs, body aches, fever. I just ended up surrendering to it and spent three or four days in bed.”

Garber tested negative twice for COVID, and when her fever broke swiftly, she thought it wasn’t influenza, either.

“It’s just a really bad cold — way worse than normal,” she said. “It totally knocked me out of the action for a couple of weeks. It just stopped everything. I felt flattened.”

Brian Pierce of Megunticook Family Medicine, a direct primary care practice in Rockport, has not been inundated this fall with patients seeking treatment for their cold symptoms. But he has noticed a big change.

“People have a much lower threshold to come to the doc,” he said. “Most people coming in actually have mild symptoms. They’re just much more concerned about ‘Maybe this is COVID.’ They don’t want to spread it to their coworkers or their families or their bosses. I’m seeing a lot of that.”

Panella agreed.

“There’s definitely a lot of hypersentivity,” she said. “People come in with hardly any symptoms, who need to get tested, who need me to listen to their lungs, just to put their minds at ease.”

She doesn’t mind.

“One of the keys to prevention is just to get tested,” Panella said. “I remember when you had a cold you just pushed through. Now is definitely not the climate to do that.”

She and other practitioners encourage people who have symptoms including cough and fever to take precautions. Those include isolating, staying home from work and school, and getting tested to see what they have.

“And obviously get vaccinated [for COVID-19 and the flu],” Panella said. “That’s the big gun we have. Our immune systems are low on antibodies. Why not give it more with the vaccines?”

Another medical professional, Finn Wilder, a family nurse practitioner at the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor, said that it’s important to not give up on practices such as hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing.

“We saw how effective they are,” Wilder said. “And yes, people got sick of it. I think people are starting to get a little more lax on some things.”

Although pandemic fatigue is real, it’s critical that people don’t just give up on doing the things that support their own health and the health of the community at large, Wilder said.  

Wilder noted that, as hard as it is to keep being careful, people need to continue to care for each other with compassion to help make dealing with illness and things like the common cold easier.