Experts say they expect more colds and other respiratory problems to rise now that mask mandates have fallen across the country. (Getty Pictures)

You may want to have your tissues handy. Now that mask mandates have been lifted across much of the United States, people may find unwanted visitors showing up more often — namely, colds, seasonal allergies and the flu.

Along with social distancing and avoiding mass gatherings, “masking has played a crucial role in reducing the transmission of not just COVID, but other respiratory infections, including influenza,” Dr Mahdee Sobhanie, an infectious disease physician at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Yahoo Life. “We are starting to see an increase in flu cases in some parts of the country, and the decrease in the use of masking can certainly contribute to that.”

Cory Fishera family physician at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, agrees, telling Yahoo Life, “With mask mandates expiring and re-engaging with social interactions, we’re seeing a lot more seasonal viral infections and the flu. These were much less common at the start of the COVID pandemic Allergies were also less symptomatic for diligent mask wearers, but I’m seeing more of that too.

That’s because masks provide “a barrier to prevent infections from passing from person to person,” says Sobhanie. He adds: “Now that there has been a drop in masking, we are seeing an increase in all kinds of respiratory viruses.”

Sobhanie points out that flu transmission, for example, was at an “all-time low” when there was social distancing and masking. “So it’s expected to go up when those measures are gone,” he says.

Parents of young children who are in daycare or school where masks are optional may also see their children bringing home more colds than at the start of the pandemic. “I would expect a lot more seasonal illnesses now that fewer and fewer students are wearing masks,” Fisher says.

Is it a cold, COVID, the flu or allergies?

Before COVID, few people would have thought twice about a sniffy nose or a sore throat, but getting sick during the pandemic may have you wondering if it’s COVID or just a common cold.

“I think we’ve all woken up in the morning with a bit of stuffiness and a sore throat and thought, ‘Am I sick?’ says Sobhanie.

The fact that the symptoms of respiratory illnesses can overlap only complicates matters. “Symptoms of the flu, a cold, and COVID can be very similar,” says Fisher, adding that in some cases “it’s hard to tell the difference without testing.”

This is especially true when it comes to COVID and flu symptoms. “They are both associated with fevers, muscle aches, stuffy and runny nose,” says Sobhanie. “That’s why if you have a fever, you should get tested for COVID or the flu.”

Colds, however, usually start with a scratchy throat and then progress to congestion and a cough, Fisher notes. Colds can also cause a runny or stuffy nose, “but you tend not to have a fever, muscle aches, or pain,” Sobhanie points out.

Allergies, on the other hand, tend to cause itchy and watery eyes and nose, as well as sneezing. But these symptoms tend to go away with allergy medication, notes Sobhanie.

“Because there are so many cross-symptoms between the flu and COVID, it’s important to get tested to see which one you have and to be treated quickly and appropriately,” says Sobhanie, who suggests keeping ” your home testing kits close at hand and don’t get rid of those masks just yet.

If you have the flu, Sobhanie explains that there are two antiviral drugs to treat the flu. For COVID, there are two antiviral drugs available, as well as monoclonal antibodies that can be provided as an infusion, he notes.

If you test positive for the flu or COVID, Sobhanie recommends calling your doctor to see what treatment options are available to you.

How to protect your health

As more and more people stop wearing masks, experts say there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting one of these respiratory illnesses. “One of the things that’s always important to continue is the common sense things we did before COVID, like washing our hands, covering your cough or sneeze with your sleeve, and avoiding touching your face. “, explains Sobhanie. “Also, if you’re sick, it’s best to avoid others so they don’t get sick.”

It’s also important to be aware of the extent of COVID transmission in your area “and if you were at a gathering where you might have been exposed,” says Sobhanie. You can find out if COVID levels are high, medium, or low in your specific county and state by accessing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Geographic Data Tracker.

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