Do you have a cold, flu or COVID-19? Experts explain how to see the difference

A common cold, a case of flu – or COVID-19. The diseases all have similar symptoms, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish what makes you breathless. (Subbotina Anna, Shutterstock)

Estimated reading time: 5-6 minutes

ATLANTA – Do you have a sore throat, runny nose and muscle aches? It could be a common cold, a case of the flu – or COVID-19.

The diseases all have similar symptoms, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish what makes you breathless.

The number of cases of COVID-19 has been increasing as the omicron variant has spread, but the number of admissions appears to remain relatively low. For vaccinated people, evidence suggests that infection with this variant seems less likely to be serious, said epidemiologist and former Detroit Health Department CEO Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.

The important thing to remember is that a vaccine is like giving a ‘be on the lookout’ call to your immune system. So its capacity to identify, target and destroy viruses is so much higher every time we take another boost of the vaccine . ” said El-Sayed. “It makes sense that the symptoms you would experience are milder if you have been vaccinated.”

That does not mean, however, that infections should not be taken seriously, he added, especially when considering the risk of overwhelming health systems.

“Just because the individual risk of serious illness may be lower does not mean on a societal level that omicron does not pose a real risk,” he said. “Even a small part of a relatively large number can be a relatively large number.”

Many COVID-19 infections can look like a cold or flu. The best way to know is to get a test, said Dr. Sarah Ash Combs, attending physician at Children’s National Hospital.

“If I do not get a test, I would say it’s really hard to distinguish right now,” Combs said. “We just need to treat cold symptoms in pretty much the same bucket” as COVID-19.

What symptoms to look for

Early signs of colds, flu and COVID-19 tend to be similar, El-Sayed said.

Both COVID-19 and the flu often cause symptoms such as fever, fatigue, body aches, sore throat, shortness of breath and vomiting or diarrhea, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, COVID-19 infection can be recognized by the headaches and dry coughs that often accompany. The loss of taste and smell that has been the biggest warning sign of a COVID-19 infection is still a possible symptom, although it is less prevalent now than it has been with other variants, El-Sayed said.

“For people who feel severe chest pain, especially with a dry cough that has gotten worse, this is when you really should seek medical attention,” he warned.

The most important factor to consider is exposure.

“If you’re starting to notice any of these symptoms, it’s worth asking: Has anyone I’ve come in contact with been infected with COVID? It’s also worth isolating and taking a quick test,” he advised.

Even if you do not notice symptoms yet, it may be best to exercise caution if you have been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“I think it’s worth having a high suspicion that it may be COVID given that the omicron variant is spreading like wildfire,” El-Sayed added.

When to test for COVID-19

It is often a good idea to address your suspicion of COVID-19 by taking a test, though it does make a difference when you do.

If you are feeling symptoms, now is the time to take a test, El-Sayed said.

For those who have been exposed but do not feel symptoms, there is a possibility that the virus has not developed enough to show up on a quick test, he explained. In these cases, it is best to wait five days after exposure before testing and stay on the lookout, according to the CDC.

“Just because you get a negative test, does not necessarily mean it is not COVID,” El-Sayed said. “The best approach is to test and then maybe test again in 12 to 24 hours, and if you get two negatives, you can be more sure it’s not.”

Whether it is COVID-19 or the common cold, it has always been a good idea to isolate oneself while fighting a viral disease, he said. It has become even more important as the risk of spread is increasing with COVID-19.

What to do if your child starts sniffing

Looking forward to returning to school after the winter break, the United States is at a time when people need to treat cold or flu symptoms in the same way as COVID-19, Combs said.

When a family enters her emergency room with a child who has snuff and sore throat and asks what it is, she is honest: She can not know for sure without a test, Combs said.

Children experience omicron much the same way adults do because the symptoms are much more extensive and often milder, like a cold, she said.

Getting a flu shot for your child is important to reduce the chance of adding another virus to the mix, Combs said. Children under the age of 5 are still awaiting COVID-19 vaccine approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, but the elderly can be vaccinated to reduce the risk of spreading and serious illness.

When going back to a school environment, testing will be crucial to protecting against outbreaks, Combs said.

“If you’re looking to be really careful, if you’re watching a child who goes back to a school environment is spreading to other people, I would say the only way to know that is to take that test,” said Combs.

The good news is that we know how to deal with infections when children return to school, Combs said. When it is not clear whether your child was exposed, or whether their test is still pending, protocols such as masking, disinfecting, distancing and reducing indoor gatherings are still believed to be effective in reducing spread, she added.

And knowing that advice can evolve as time goes on, El-Sayed warned.

“It’s changing fast. We’re learning a lot more,” he said. “Omicorn is a variant we’ve only really known for about a month.”

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