Two months ago, festival season had just kicked off in Chicago with the appropriately titled Spring Awakening. I settled back at my desk after two days in the sunshine driven by bikinis and bass, opened my laptop, and cleared my throat with a wet cough.
"Uh oh," my boss commented, warily. "It begins." Every year, a tidal wave of weariness and flu-like symptoms rips through the office where we help market and produce local events. I'd been warned about the "festival flu," but this was my first year managing social media live from every major music festival in the city. I didn’t know what I was in for.
All summer, I soaked my panties to Jeremih and my sneakers in vast puddles, fueled by funnel cake and free energy drinks. I glared at bros in Camelbaks and visors screaming racial slurs along with rap songs and saw limp teenagers cradling each other through severe serotonin distress on curbs. I got hugs from people I only recognized from Twitter profile photos and made out with a Southside rapper in the Lollapalooza media tent. I even took a nap on the beach while The Black Madonna played me a personal soundtrack of Chicago house.
I expected to spring back from the summer cold I'd picked up. Instead, with my routine upended by long days at festivals, I never recovered. I was working from my couch in a foggy, achey daze and stumbling through kaleidoscope weekends with Kaytranada and Kali Uchis thanks to Adderall, over-the-counter caffeine pills and Advil Cold and Sinus.
It wasn't until I started writing down dates to take with me to a doctor's appointment that I realized how long I'd been sick. Weariness and lethargy after Mamby on the Beach. A nasty, lingering cough after the whirling baseball diamond dust storms of Pitchfork. A fever that confined me to bed for days after Lollapalooza. I ended up with a timeline that showed I'd been sick for two straight months.
"You're doing everything right," my doctor said, pressing a stethoscope to my slouching back. "You're just really run down." I resolved to find out exactly why the festival flu was such a powerful opponent, and how I'd defeat it next summer.
Music festivals bring together thousands of people from locations far flung all over the globe, but the festival flu’s origins are likely nothing more exotic than the common cold. One study found that over half of upper respiratory infections are caused by rhinovirus, at least in cases where the cause can be established. Rhinovirus is incredibly common: the typical adult spends up to two years over a lifetime with cold symptoms.
Influenza is less common, but still present. As a preventative measure, you can get vaccinated against the flu, and it can even help the young, elderly and immunocompromised folks in your life gain herd immunity.
Bacterial infections account for only about 5% of upper respiratory infections. Antibiotics don’t fight viral infections such as rhinovirus or influenza, and are only effective against bacterial infections like strep throat. Prescribing antibiotics for the majority of colds is unnecessary and contributes to the rising prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The germs you're likely to encounter crowdsurfing at Bonnaroo are the same ones you're coming across on public transportation, in the workplace and with friends. The reason you're more likely to get sick at a festival lies in what's different in our own behavior when we attend a multi-day event that has a focus on partying.
Sleep has a profound effect on the body's response to the threat of infection. In one study, researchers found that participants who slept less than six hours a night were four times more likely to develop a cold from exposure to rhinovirus than those who got more than seven hours of shut-eye.
Other studies, which measured how effectively the immune system responded to vaccinations, found that patients who slept well the night before had an increased antibody response. Indeed, a persistent lack of sleep may cause the body's inflammatory system to overreact to the infection, causing more severe symptoms rather than fighting off an illness.
Planning to hit the bar between bands? Alcohol decreases the body's ability to maintain airway sterility, suppresses the immune system's protective response and increases complications from infections as the body loses the ability to effectively clear opportunistic pathogens. If you're also breathing in cigarette smoke, the damage to your airway and lungs can make it easier for incoming pathogens to take hold.
I asked a friend who works for a major festival production company for advice for those of us who are unlikely to completely abstain from alcohol during an event. "Start strong. Drink hard your first day or two, and gradually slow down from there. Avoid anyone that is outright sick, and never roll around in the mud unless you want gangrene. Otherwise, embrace germs and bacteria! Shake hands. Share drinks. Hell, straight up sit on a toilet seat when using the bathroom. It’ll boost your immune system and desensitize you to the other horrors you’ll inevitably encounter at a festival."
When infectious pathogens, imperfect hygiene, little sleep and substance consumption come together, people can get very ill. My coworker Ami York, who has over six years of experience in festival production, has been through it all. She regaled me with stories of losing 10 pounds and being bedridden for days after the inaugural Summer Set camping festival, and why it's a bad idea to drink the tap water at The BPM Festival in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.
"Use a bandana to cover your mouth and nose," she recommends. "Breathing in the dust always results in an upper respiratory infection. I had a coworker blow her nose and a blade of grass came flying out!"
Some associate a particularly virulent strain of illness with "wooks," a subculture that celebrates improvisational music and sleeping in a muddy field using only your caucasian dreadlocks as a pillow. Carmel, a Camp Counselor for Chillicothe, Illinois' Summer Camp festival advises you to avoid them outright if you don't want to catch the dreaded "wook flu."
After the anesthetic effect of balloons of nitrous oxide wear off, the wooks themselves return home to share their stories of illness in the trenches and suggest home remedies. Sinus infection after Electric Forest, an electronic and jam band festival that completely sold out in 2016? Try kratrom, a quasi-legal and addictive herbal painkiller, one veteran suggests.
The problem is hardly limited to electronic and jam music festivals, however. Gainesville punk rockers report a yearly illness that spreads through Fest 13 every year. If you're attempting to stave off the effects, just dump an Emergen-C in a PBR for a "Fest mimosa."
Preventative measures for the common cold abound, many with very little clear proven benefit. Ginseng, Vitamin D and Echinacea have not been shown to prevent infection. There is some clinical evidence that Vitamin C reduces the development of illness in response to exposure to cold and physical stress, but not enough data on what that means for someone who isn't running a marathon or scaling a mountain.
On the other hand, there is solid evidence that prophylactic zinc, as found in products like Cold-Eaze, reduces the number of colds per year. Next festival season I'll be mainlining zinc, sleeping a full 8 hours every night, wearing a bandana over my mouth and staying sober. But before that can happen, I still have to recover from this year.
I walked out of the high rise hotel building on Chicago's Magnificent Mile where my doctor has their office with a spring in my step. I hadn't left empty handed; I had prescriptions for an inhaler and nasal spray I could use to alleviate symptoms, as well as a one week course of Prednisone, an immunosuppressant steroid that would help clear the infection from my system. I also had a handwritten paper prescription for codeine cough syrup.
It had been a long, hard summer. I should have been spending my free time at the beach, not convalescing in bed. Despite all that, I couldn't find it in me to complain. I was finally going to start feeling better. I got to see one of my favorite rappers of all time, Future, twice. And now, maybe, with a bottle of codeine cough syrup in hand, I could finally connect with his music on a deeper level.
Speaking of festivals, check out the strongest looks at Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn.