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Summer Colds Are Back — Here's How To Keep From Getting Sick


All right. In the U.S., as the coronavirus pandemic seems to be turning a big corner, people are dropping their masks. They're getting out in crowds more, which means - guess what - summer colds are back. That is especially bad news for parents of young kids, parents like NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, who has some tips for keeping these garden-variety viruses at bay.

Hey, Selena.


KELLY: So I gather your idea for this story sprang from real-life drama. Is that right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Oh, yes. So Washington, D.C., lifted its mask mandate. Suddenly, both my kids get runny noses. I tested them for COVID-19, of course, and they were negative, thank goodness. But then my spouse was heading into story time in a low-key panic because the kids are sneezing on everything and rubbing snot on their arms. And she always seems to get sinus infections every time my kids get colds. So she was like, you know what? I'm wearing a mask. And that got me wondering, is that smart? Should this be our new normal? What else should we be doing? - questions like that.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, and since you're not only a mom but also an intrepid reporter, you went out and reported this. What'd you learn?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. I learned that wearing masks can stop the transmission of run-of-the-mill viruses. They work even better when they're on the person who's sick. So next time, I might put them on my kids. And you don't really need an N95, just a surgical mask or a cloth mask with at least two layers. The sources I talked to suggest keeping this on for the first few days of symptoms, which is when people tend to be most infectious. And I also learned that hand-washing is more important than obsessively scrubbing down every object in the house. Here is Seema Lakdawala, who studies flu transmission at the University of Pittsburgh. She says if she were to touch something like a kitchen counter that her kid had sneezed on, for example...

SEEMA LAKDAWALA: That, in and of itself, is not infecting me. If I touch my face, then I can inoculate myself. Well, if I just go wash my hands, that risk is gone.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So she had another few tips that she uses as well.

LAKDAWALA: When my kids are sick, what I end up doing is I open the windows. I turn on the fans. I get a lot more air circulation going on in the house. And I do try to just, like, not snuggle them, keep them a little bit at a distance.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So all of this sounds familiar, right? Masking, hand-washing, social distancing, ventilation - all of the same tips that we learned about how to stop the spread of COVID-19 really transfer directly to the spread of these other viruses.

KELLY: Well, exactly. It does sound so familiar. I'm wondering, too - does it vary from virus to virus? Because we learned a lot about how COVID - the coronavirus spreads, which was different from what we initially thought. Like, you know, does it live on surfaces? Does it spread via aerosols?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So yes, viruses do spread in different ways. It depends on the environment, the amount of virus the sick person is spreading around and all sorts of other variables. But when a kid gets the sniffles and it's not too serious, you probably aren't going to ever know exactly which virus it is - a rhinovirus, an adenovirus or whatever. And you're also not going to know whether it spreads more on surfaces versus droplets or any of that, so the important thing is to just hold in your mind these basic guidelines that generally work for respiratory viruses and do as many of them as you need to or want to do to keep everyone in your house from getting sick.

KELLY: Selena, you were talking about, for example, slapping masks on your kids when they get a cold. What about, you know, the more awkward things? Your kid's friend comes over. They're coming for a playdate. They're hacking and coughing and sneezing everywhere. Any ideas for navigating that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, it's true. It's so clear with this pandemic that public health is a community- and society-level thing, not just about individuals. Dr. Preeti Malani, the chief health officer at the University of Michigan, told me she hopes that if the pandemic taught us anything, it's that we need to change the culture of powering through when we're sick.

PREETI MALANI: I don't admit this happily, but I've certainly sent my kids to school sick. And you just figured, you're not that sick. You can't miss school. You know, I'm guilty of coming to work sick myself. I think that piece of it has hopefully changed.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She hopes even when people have mild symptoms, they'll stay home, as long as policymakers and employers make that possible with telework and paid time off. On a big enough scale, that could really cut back on a lot of miserable colds and flus.

KELLY: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reporting.

Thank you, Selena.


(SOUNDBITE OF KISHI BASHI SONG, "CAN'T LET GO, JUNO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.