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During the fall and winter, it is normal to have a sore throat or stuffy nose.
Before COVID-19, many attributed these symptoms to the common cold, knowing that rest and fluids would bring them back in no time.
However, with the rise of respiratory syncytial virus in Canada, also known as RSV, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to determine which disease you actually have.
With this year’s “triple epidemic,” your cold symptoms could actually mean you have COVID-19, the flu, or RSV, which makes you sicker than the common cold virus. Additionally, these conditions are extremely contagious, so it is important that you do your best to avoid spreading your disease to others.
So what’s the difference between a cold, the flu, RSV and COVID-19? Read on to find out how your symptoms can give you important clues.
At the start of the week, the New York Times released a chart describing the nuances between the symptoms and the diseases prevalent at this time of the year.
The common cold is probably the least serious virus you can catch, with cough, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat being the most common symptoms.
Headaches, fatigue and body aches are sometimes associated with colds, while difficulty breathing, loss of taste and smell, fever, vomiting and diarrhea are rare symptoms.
The flu is characterized by cough, fatigue, fever, headache, muscle aches and body aches.
Sometimes flu patients may have a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Difficulty breathing, wheezing, and loss of taste and smell are rarely present.
The RSV virus is currently taking the world by storm, with hospitals across North America being overloaded with RSV patients.
According to the National Collaborating Center for Infectious Diseases, RSV is a virus that infects the respiratory tract (meaning the lungs and airways).
Although RSV can affect anyone at any age, it is most common in infants and children. In fact, it’s so common that by the age of two, most infants and children have been infected with some form of RSV.
RSV can be life-threatening, especially in infants and older people with a history of congestive heart failure, asthma, or other breathing problems.
Symptoms that occur most often include coughing, wheezing, and a runny or stuffy nose.
Sometimes patients may have headaches, fever, breathing difficulties and sneezing. Rarely, people with RSV experience fatigue, muscle aches, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Despite common misconceptions, COVID-19 remains a serious concern and can spread more easily and cause more severe illness than the flu in some people. It can also take longer for COVID symptoms to appear, which means you can spread the virus before you know you’re sick.
Most often, patients suffer from cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, headache and sore throat. Sometimes people will have fever, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, runny nose, sneezing, vomiting, or diarrhea. Rarely, patients will have wheezing.
Which variants of COVID-19 are the most common?
By the end of 2021, the Omicron variant was evolving at a rapid pace. Since then, new variants emerged last month in Canada and the United States as the most common strands of SARS-CoV-2 — BQ.1 and BQ.1.1.
Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization on November 24, 2021 after being detected in South Africa. It has since spread to several countries.
Omicron has been classified as a variant of concern by the WHO, and the organization says it coordinates with many researchers around the world to better understand new strains.
How to tell the difference between COVID-19, the flu, RSV and the common cold
With many Canadians likely to get sick this cold season, it’s important to honestly and accurately assess your most common symptoms. However, making this distinction is more difficult than it seems, as many symptoms can overlap.
The only symptom you may experience with COVID-19 and not with the flu, a cold, or RSV is loss of smell. However, many people with the coronavirus don’t lose their sense of smell and Barrett says it’s not a “helpful tool for differentiating.”
With a variety of infections producing similar effects, self-diagnosis is not a safe option.
When you experience any of the symptoms mentioned, the only way to know for sure is to get tested by a medical professional.
What you can do to stay safe
By now, the public is well aware of ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19, RSV, colds and flu – and experts are advising more of the same, especially when it comes to travel.
“I think it’s ambitious and somewhat naive to think that just stopping people from traveling is going to change the amount of Omicron in this country,” Barrett said. “What we do within our borders and in our own cities and in everyday life is far more important.”
The World Health Organization says it will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available on COVID-19 and other conditions. As for what you can do, the recommendations haven’t changed.
Wearing a good mask (experts have advised Canadians to ditch their single-layer cloth masks in favor of medical ones), social distancing, especially indoors, staying home when sick, and washing hands regularly are good practices that everyone should maintain throughout cold and flu and pandemic season.
Also, get vaccinated and get your flu shot. Health officials are urging Canadians to say the best way to protect themselves from COVID-19 and the flu is to get vaccinated if you qualify.
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