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.

All illnesses share similar symptoms, so it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is making you feel bad.

Covid-19 case rates increased as the omicron variant spread, but the number of hospitalizations appears to remain relatively low.

In the case of vaccinated people, the data suggests that infection with this variant appears to be less severe, according to epidemiologist and former executive director of the Detroit Department of Health, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.

“The important thing to remember is that a vaccine is like a wake-up call to the immune system. Therefore, its ability to identify, attack and destroy viruses is much greater every time we add another booster to the vaccine,” El-Sayed said.

“It makes sense that the symptoms you experience are milder if you’ve been vaccinated.”

However, that does not mean that infections should not be taken seriously, he added, especially considering the risk of overloading healthcare systems.

“The fact that the individual risk of serious disease is lower does not mean that at the social level omicron does not pose a real risk,” he said. “Even a small proportion of a relatively large number can be a relatively large number.”

Many COVID-19 infections can look like a cold or the flu. The best way to find out is to get tested, said Dr. Sarah Ash Combs, a primary care physician at National Children’s Hospital.

“If you don’t get tested, I’d say it’s really hard to tell right now,” Combs said. “We have to treat cold symptoms more or less in the same tone” as COVID-19.

What symptoms to look for

The early symptoms of cold, 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 (CDC).

However, covid-19 infection is distinguished by the headache and dry cough that often accompany it. Loss of taste and smell, which has been the biggest warning sign of a Covid-19 infection, remains a possible symptom, although it is now less common than in other variants, El-Sayed said.

“For people experiencing severe chest pain, especially with a dry cough that has worsened, this is when they really should seek medical attention,” he warned.

The most important factor to consider is exposure.

“If you start to feel any of these symptoms, it is worth asking yourself: Has someone with whom I have been in contact been infected with covid? It is also worth isolating and getting a quick test,” he advises.

Even if you are still not feeling symptoms, it may be best to exercise caution if you have been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“I think it is worth keeping a high suspicion that it may be covid considering that we have the omicron variant spreading like wildfire,” El-Sayed added.

At this time, it’s safest to treat all cold symptoms with care, Combs said.

When to get tested for covid-19

It is a good measure to have a test if there are suspicions of covid-19, but the moment of its performance is what makes the difference.

If symptoms are felt, it is time to get tested, El-Sayed said.

For those who have been exposed but have no symptoms, there is a chance that the virus has not developed enough to show up on a rapid test, he explained. In those cases, it’s best to wait five days after exposure before testing and remain vigilant, according to the CDC.

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

Whether it’s covid-19 or the common cold, it’s always been a good idea to isolate yourself while fighting a viral illness, he said. Now it is even more important, since the risk of contagion increases with covid-19.

What to do if your child starts to runny nose

Heading back to school after winter break, the United States is at a point where people need to treat cold or flu symptoms just like COVID-19, Combs said.

When a family comes to her emergency department with a child who has a runny nose and a sore throat and asks what it’s all about, she’s sincere: She can’t know for sure without a test, Combs said.

Children experience the omicron variant in the same way as adults, as the symptoms are much broader and often milder, like a cold, he said.

It’s important for children to get a flu shot to reduce the chance that another virus will be added to the mix, Combs said. Children under 5 years of age are still awaiting approval of the vaccine by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but older children can be vaccinated to reduce the risk of infection and serious illness.

When they return to the school setting, testing is going to be essential to protect themselves from outbreaks, Combs said.

“If you want to be really careful, if you want a child to go back to a school environment where they could infect other people, I would say that the only way to really know is by taking that test,” Combs said.

“The good news is that we know how to manage infections when kids go back to school,” Combs said.

“When it’s unclear if your child has been exposed or if their testing is still pending, protocols such as mask use, disinfection, distancing, and reducing indoor gatherings are still believed to be effective in reducing the spread,” he added.

And be clear that variants can evolve over time, El-Sayed warned.

“It is changing rapidly. We are learning much more,” he said. “Omicron is a variant that we really have barely known about for a month.”

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