We’re all tired of worrying about pandemics and contagious conditions. But not wanting to hear about them doesn’t make them go away. Unfortunately, we can’t ignore the triple epidemic in the U.S. right now.
You might have already seen articles talking about the “tripledemic.” You might even be one of the thousands of patients admitted to the hospital in just the last month.
Between RSV, the flu, and COVID, people are understandably concerned about their health.
While cases of RSV are starting to drop, this triple epidemic isn’t over. Here’s why it’s happening and what you need to know!
What is a Triple Epidemic?
An epidemic is “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time” within a specific area.
The difference between an epidemic and a pandemic is that a pandemic affects a much larger population across a significantly wider region, typically many countries across the globe.
This season, the Triple Epidemic includes RSV, influenza, and COVID.
RSV, short for respiratory syncytial virus, is a respiratory virus that typically has cold-like symptoms. Most healthy adults will recover from it in a week or so. However, infants, the elderly, and immunocompromised people can have much more severe symptoms. Without treatment, it may even lead to death in these groups.
Currently, there is no vaccine for RSV. The only way to keep from getting this virus is to follow health safety precautions, including frequent handwashing, social distancing, immune support, and masking.
Influenza, or the flu, follows similar patterns, although even healthy people tend to experience more severe symptoms that can last for up to two weeks. These can include cough, sore throat, congestion, fever, body aches, headaches, fatigue, and even nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
A yearly flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. Even when it’s less effective due to different strains, it’ll still help prevent severe symptoms and a long recovery time.
Finally, there’s COVID.
The strain that is currently most dominant is the omicron variant, BA.5. This strain is proving to be tricky because it can sidestep immune defenses from vaccines and previous infections due to its adaptations.
As with the flu vaccine, COVID vaccines and boosters can still help prevent more serious side effects if you still become infected. And all of the precautions we were taking are still recommended and effective, especially for more vulnerable people.
Why is the Triple Epidemic Happening?
The spreading of multiple contagious diseases during a season is nothing new.
Cold weather creates the perfect conditions for the spread of viruses. Being indoors more often makes it easier to pass illnesses, and cooler, dry air lowers our resistance to them. Furthermore, our immune system takes a dip when we don’t exercise as much or eat as healthily.
However, this season, it’s worse than usual.
We’ve spent the last two flu seasons taking precautions against spreading COVID. Those precautions also prevented us from spreading other contagions. For instance, flu rates were significantly lower in 2019 and 2020 than in previous years.
(Take a look at this interactive map detailing the rates of the flu year by year.)
Now that many people have stopped wearing masks and practicing social distancing, the typical patterns for the spread of RSV and the flu have been interrupted. Both have escalated faster and much earlier in the year than expected.
How the Tripledemic Affects Hospitals
This triple epidemic has again led to hospitals overflowing with patients and consistently short on beds.
Pediatric hospitals were hit especially hard by RSV early in the season during October and November. While experts believe the spread of this particular virus is slowing down, the flu is quickly taking its place.
At the time of writing, almost 80% of hospital beds in the U.S. are full, and nearly 9 million people have already had or have the flu.
If previous years are any indication, those numbers will continue to rise throughout December.
Finally, COVID-19 rates are also increasing, though less dramatically than in the past two years. However, an increase in COVID patients further strains hospitals and healthcare workers.
What You Can Do to Stop the Spread
Staying healthy and not spreading RSV, the flu, and COVID involves good hygiene and self-isolation.
More than anything, if you’re sick, please stay home if at all possible. When living with others who aren’t ill, try to stay in one room and keep away from others as much as you can.
If you go to the doctor or pharmacy, wear a mask and wash your hands to protect those around you.
For those who are not sick, practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently. Consider wearing a mask if you or somebody in your household are elderly, an infant, or have a weakened immune system.
Lastly, if you haven’t received your COVID-19 vaccines/boosters and your flu shot, it’s not too late. You can search for the nearest place to get these vaccines by visiting https://www.vaccines.gov/search/.
Don’t Be Scared of the Triple Epidemic, but Be Aware!
The winter months often add stress to many people’s lives. Between the holidays, end-of-year worry, and flu season, there’s plenty to be concerned about.
However, stress can lower your immune system. And fortunately, you can prevent and treat RSV, the flu, and COVID.
Follow the advice above to help protect yourself and your family from getting sick, and keep track of triple epidemic illness rates in your area. When they are high, try to avoid being out in public unless necessary.
If you get sick, visit your healthcare provider and follow their advice for symptom treatment. Assuming you are otherwise healthy, most symptoms can be alleviated with sufficient fluids, plenty of rest, and OTC medications.
Hopefully, with some care and precaution, the triple epidemic won’t significantly impact you and your family this season.