As we enter flu season at the same time as concerns surrounding a “second wave” of the coronavirus pandemic, it grows more and more likely that cold or flu symptoms may end up being mistaken for COVID-19. In a new YouTube video, pulmonary medicine specialist Dr. Mike Hansen explains how to tell the difference between COVID, the flu and the common cold as temperatures continue to drop.
“There are over 200 viruses that can cause the common cold,” he says. “The exact virus that causes infection and how your body’s immune system reacts to that infection, is what determines how severe the illness will be.”
In the case of COVID-19, an infected person doesn’t necessarily need to be displaying symptoms yet in order to spread the virus to other people. “About 40 percent of viral transmission occurs before an infected person actually shows symptoms, he says. “And up to one third of people with COVID-19 never get symptoms.”
With the common cold, you’re most contagious right when you get the virus, before developing symptoms, although you do remain contagious for the duration of the illness. And in the case of influenza, you’re most contagious the day before you get symptoms, and remain contagious for around five days after that. “With any of these illnesses, it’s important to stay home to prevent others from getting sick,” he says.
But what about the symptoms? For a cold, Hansen cites sneezing, a stuffy nose, sore throat and cough as the most common symptoms, which tend to be most severe from day two to day four of the illness—although the cough can persist for several weeks. Influenza symptoms often present as the same, along with fever, aches and nausea.
The real “wild card,” however, is COVID, as it is so inconsistent in which symptoms manifest in patients, and how mildly or strongly. The standout symptom that is unique to this virus is the loss of the senses of taste and/or smell. “When you compare COVID-19 to the flu, they can both cause viral pneumonia and ARDS, but COVID-19 is more likely to do that,” says Hansen.
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“Symptoms alone are not enough to determine whether you have COVID-19 vs. the flu vs. the common cold,” he continues. “You’re going to want to get a test… It’s also important to get the flu vaccination this year more so than ever because of the pandemic.”
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the United Kingdom covering pop culture, relationships and LGBTQ+ issues.
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