A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll finds that while 32% of adults say they’ve had COVID once, 15% report they’ve been infected two or three times.
More specifically, the survey — which was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,636 U.S. adults interviewed online Sept. 14-18, 2023 — found that 12% of people said they’ve caught COVID twice, and 3% have been infected three times. The poll also revealed that 1% of people have had COVID four times. The majority — 46% — said they’d never contracted COVID.
However, more people may have been infected than they even realize. While U.S. Census data shows that nearly 55% of Americans believe they’ve had COVID, the reality is that it’s much higher, with an estimated 77.5% of Americans having antibodies from getting COVID at least once, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But as COVID cases continue to climb, experts say people can expect another round of infections.
“As we head into the fall, many individuals will contract COVID again,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.
Dr. Aaron Friedberg, clinical co-lead of the Post COVID Recovery Program at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “Since at this point, around 80% of the U.S. population has had COVID-19 at least once, as time goes on it will become increasingly common to have reinfection.”
Friedberg points out that COVID case rates are rising, and hospitalizations — which he explains lag behind the actual number of infections — have doubled since earlier in the summer. “Since COVID-19 first started spreading, there have been increased case rates in the winter months,” he says, “and it seems likely this will be the case in the next few months as well.”
Catching COVID more than once is now “extremely common,” says Adalja. “It’s actually the norm. Individuals will have COVID-19 multiple times throughout their life, just like they contract influenza and other respiratory viruses multiple times in their life.”
While the latest COVID variants typically cause mild cold-like symptoms in most people, such as sore throat, congestion, sneezing and fatigue, repeated infections aren’t as harmless as the common cold — and can put your health at risk. Here’s what experts want you to know.
Are repeat COVID infections harmful to your health?
They can be, say experts. “Most repeat infections are mild due to the immunity that has accrued from prior infections, but in high-risk individuals — or in those who have developed a high-risk condition in the interim — there is still a risk for severe disease occurring with a repeat infection,” says Adalja.
However, whether or not you’re a high-risk individual, Friedberg says it’s “definitely better” to avoid COVID-19 if you can. He points to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study that compared people who had only one known COVID infection with those who had two or more bouts with the virus and found that hospitalization risk increased and rates of death were doubled in those with two or more infections compared with just one infection. “In addition, there were increased health risks in other ways too, such as heart, lung, gastrointestinal, kidney, neurologic and endocrine problems,” he says.
Dr. Robert Atmar, professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, agrees that multiple infections are a health risk. “Although we are not seeing as many people get sick enough to be hospitalized, we are still seeing some persons who had prior COVID be hospitalized and even die from repeat infection,” he tells Yahoo Life.
Atmar says the symptoms are similar to what we saw with initial infections — “a febrile respiratory illness with cough, nasal and throat symptoms and systemic symptoms including malaise, fatigue, muscle aches and headache,” but he explains there can also be “the development or worsening of underlying diseases, including heart and lung disease.”
Does having COVID multiple times raise your chances of long COVID?
That’s still hard to tell, say experts. “The mechanics and risks of long COVID are poorly understood, and it’s unclear if repeated infections increase the risk,” says Adalja.
Friedberg agrees, saying, “It is hard to say for sure at this point whether a second or third COVID-19 infection has a different risk of long COVID than the first infection.”
However, Atmar says some studies have found that the risk of developing long COVID is greater after a second episode of COVID, while others have reported “a lower, but still important, risk of long COVID.” He adds: “Whether the risk is higher or somewhat lower after a second episode of COVID, this contrasts with the lack of such risk if COVID is prevented.”
Does having COVID more than once help your immune response?
Repeat infections — and vaccinations — tend to broaden the immune system’s response to existing and emerging SARS CoV-2 variants, says Atmar. “Such broader responses — being able to recognize newer strains — can provide protection against infection and illness from those strains,” he says.
Adalja notes that “each infection adds to the repertoire of immune response to the virus just as updated vaccines do.”
However, unlike vaccine-induced immunity, getting COVID naturally comes with more risks, including severe disease, long COVID and death.
So what can you do to lower the chances you’ll get COVID again?
Although Adalja points out that catching COVID again is “really unavoidable over time,” experts say there are things you can do to protect yourself — namely, the same prevention strategies infectious disease experts have recommended over the past several years.
At the top of the list is getting the updated booster vaccine now authorized by the CDC. “Vaccines protect best at preventing severe complications of SARS CoV-2 infection, but they also provide protection against reinfection, milder illness and long COVID,” says Atmar.
Other measures that “many pursued during the pandemic,” says Atmar, including wearing masks — particularly high filtration masks such as N95 or KN95 and especially when in large groups — isolating when ill or infected, and testing for SARS CoV-2 infection if exposed “can provide protection to the individual or to their families and friends.”