The only thing scarier than the simultaneous surge of two viruses is the simultaneous surge of three. That's what scientists are saying this season, anyway, since three separate viral threats, including influenza, COVID-19 and RSV, are all showing signs of spiking this winter.
So, what would this supposed "tripledemic" actually mean, and why might so many viruses surge all at once?
Turning A Double Into A Triple
Since respiratory viruses are more active in the winter, scientists have worried about the possibility of a "twindemic," or a combined surge of influenza and coronavirus, almost from the start of the pandemic. And specialists warn that a surprisingly severe spike in cases of flu or COVID-19 could bend the already strained medical system in the U.S. beyond its breaking point. This, experts say, would undermine the medical system's ability to care for a wide variety of patients, whether they're suffering from respiratory viruses or any other medical condition or concern.
Read more: Why Are Viruses More Active In The Winter?
This year, scientists' anxieties about a potential "twindemic" continue thanks to several signs that foreshadow a severe season of influenza and coronavirus to come. For instance, there is an outpouring of flu activity around the globe. And the relative inactivity of influenza in the U.S. throughout the past couple years could foretell a serious season in the future.
Adding to those concerns is the alarming assortment of coronavirus variants that are currently spreading. They also show a remarkable resistance to the immunities that are already implanted in the population thanks to previous COVID-19 infections and vaccinations. These factors, specialists say, suggest that a combined increase in influenza and coronavirus cases is much more probable this season than in previous years.
More about influenza and coronavirus:
Specialists previously said that this season could create a "twindemic," a simultaneous increase in influenza and coronavirus, adding additional strain to the already stressed medical systems.
This season, scientists say, could also see an increase in co-infections of influenza and coronavirus known as "flurona."
These two respiratory viruses split off into separate variants as they pass from person to person, and several of the currently circulating coronavirus variants are particularly transmissible.
Now, new signs are pointing to the possibility of something more serious than a "twindemic." Infections from yet another respiratory virus are already starting to trouble the medical apparatuses in some states in the U.S.
This third virus, known as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), is a common form of infection that tends to target younger children and older adults. Similar to influenza and coronavirus, the threat spreads through the air after an infected individual coughs, sneezes, speaks or breathes, and its infections feature similar symptoms, including a cough, a congested nose, and a sore, scratchy throat.
Though these symptoms tend to remain mild, mirroring the typical severity of influenza, coronavirus and many other respiratory viruses, scientists still say that these three viruses in combination could cause an overwhelming wave of hospitalizations.
Why a Tripledemic?
While specialists are certain that the coincidence of these viruses could cause some serious trouble, they aren’t quite as confident as to why the three will seemingly surge at the same time. Still, some suspect that the reason may relate to the reduction of coronavirus restrictions throughout the recent months.
In fact, these scientists say that many of the mitigation measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing directives and mask mandates, suppressed infections from coronavirus as well as infections from several other respiratory viruses. As a result, recent relaxations of these measures in the U.S. may increase the risk of passing influenza, COVID-19 and RSV from person to person.
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Ultimately, specialists say that vaccines are the top option for individuals interested in protecting themselves and those around them against the threat of a "tripledemic." In addition to cutting the chances of catching these conditions, shots for flu and for COVID-19 are also known to soften the severity of symptoms in the off chance that recipients of the shots still catch the viruses, regardless of their reduced chances. Similar capabilities are also anticipated for future vaccines for RSV, though they’re still in the trial stage.