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If it feels like your kid has been sick for months — here's some scientific comfort

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Does this sound familiar?

(SOUNDBITE OF SNEEZE AND COUGH)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I just feel sick.

SHAPIRO: For many families with young children, the last few months have felt like a relentless onslaught of stuffy noses, fevers and endless coughing. If you are among those living in this viral stew, NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy is here with a bit of scientific comfort.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: I wanted to report this story last month, but I was too sick with COVID. My kid gave it to me.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Sorry, Mom.

GODOY: My colleagues on the health reporting team would have done the story instead, but they've been sick too, thanks to their kids. And we're far from alone in our woes.

RACHEL PEARSON: Like so many parents out there, my husband and I have been sick all winter. We've been sneezing, coughing, had fevers. It's gross.

GODOY: That's Dr. Rachel Pearson. She's a pediatrician at UT Health San Antonio and University Hospital. She's also the mother of 2-year-old Sam.

PEARSON: I feel like half the time he has a virus, has a runny nose, is coughing, to the point where my dad was like, is there something wrong with Sam?

GODOY: But as Pearson tells her dad and the parents of her own young patients, this seemingly never-ending cycle of sniffles is normal, if miserable.

PEARSON: When I counsel parents, I say you can have a viral infection every month. Some kids are going to cough for four weeks, to up to six weeks after a virus. And so they're going to catch their next virus before they even stop coughing from the last one, which means that some totally healthy kids are going to have symptoms for an entire year or even more.

GODOY: Especially once kids start at day care or school. In fact, if you've ever described your child as an adorable little germ vector, Dr. Carrie Byington says you're not wrong. And she's got hard data to back that up.

CARRIE BYINGTON: We all think it, but it was really incredible to have the definitive proof of it.

GODOY: Byington is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and executive vice president of the University of California Health System. Back in 2009, when she was at the University of Utah, Byington and her colleagues wanted to study the role kids play in the transmission of respiratory viruses. So they recruited 26 households to take nasal samples of everyone living in the home every week for an entire year. What they found was eye-opening.

BYINGTON: We saw as soon as a child entered the house, the proportion of weeks that an adult had an infection increased significantly.

GODOY: And more kids meant more infections. For families with two, three or four kids, someone at home had an infection a little more than half the year. And the youngest kids, those under 5, they had a viral infection 50% of the time. And Byington notes, they weren't even looking at other kinds of infections like strep throat.

BYINGTON: So obviously, there could be other things that happened throughout the year to even make it seem worse.

GODOY: Byington says all of this means that in the grand scheme of things, the number of viruses kids are getting these days is normal. But it's all more intense because of pandemic disruptions. Kids who are kept at home instead of going to day care or school didn't encounter the viruses they normally would have, so they didn't get a chance to build immunity to them over time.

BYINGTON: And so what might have been spread out in the past over 12 months, they were now seeing it all at once in this very concentrated time.

GODOY: Byington says the pandemic also disrupted the seasonality of viruses. Flu season hit earlier than usual this year as RSV and COVID were also circulating. Young children without prior exposure to these viruses were hit especially hard. Pediatric hospitals were overwhelmed. The good news is that this so-called tripledemic of viruses seems to be easing up. New data from the CDC show the number of ER visits for flu, COVID and RSV dropped to the lowest they've been since September for all age groups. But of course, the respiratory virus season isn't over yet. Maria Godoy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Maria Godoy
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.