Is it the flu, a cold, or COVID-19? How to know, and when to get tested

C. A. Bridges
Palm Beach Post
  • Dec. 14: South Africa finds omicron 'highly transmissible' and more resistant to COVID-19 vaccines

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Sneezing? Feeling congested? Coughing? Are these signs of flu season, a cold or allergies, or are they symptoms of COVID-19?

Without testing, it is difficult to determine whether the congestion is more than the flu, but either way, don't panic, say medical experts, just take proper precautions. 

"If you feel sick, don’t diagnose yourself," said Dr. Deborah German, Vice-President for Health Affairs and Dean, University of Central Florida College of Medicine. "Call your healthcare provider – don’t just show up to the clinic. Your provider can determine if you need to be tested for COVID-19 and what treatments you need."

COVID-19 levels dropping:Florida reports 25,523 COVID cases as state nears 70,000 total deaths since pandemic began

Should I still be wearing a mask?:What the new CDC COVID mask guidance means for Florida

Feeling sick? Try not to panic. How to combat COVID, flu anxiety this winter

But how do you tell if you have COVID-19? 

What are the symptoms for COVID?

According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of any variant of COVID-19 are:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

These are not the only possible symptoms, and everyone will react differently. 

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, told Reuters that symptoms of the recent omicron variant were "very mild" and could be treated at home. But like all coronavirus variants, WHO said, omicron may be capable of causing severe disease or death, particularly among vulnerable populations.

What are the symptoms for the flu?

More or less the same thing, except for the loss of taste or smell. 

COVID-19 symptoms usually appear two to 14 days after exposure to the coronavirus. Influenza (flu) symptoms start to show up about one to four days after exposure to an influenza virus.

But COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people than the flu, as well as complications such as blood clots, lasting respiratory problems.

Do you have symptoms of the flu or COVID-19? Here is how you can tell the difference.

What are the symptoms for a cold?

Like COVID, the symptoms of a cold are often coughing, sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, a sore throat, tiredness and sometimes a fever. Symptoms usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus.

Unlike COVID, a cold is usually harmless and cold-sufferers generally recover in three to 10 days.

When should I worry that I have COVID?

Some people with COVID are asymptomatic and never display any symptoms, although they are still contagious. And many people with COVID have mild symptoms. According to the CDC, if you are showing any of the following signs, seek emergency medical care immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

This list is not all the possible symptoms. Please call your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning to you.

The CDC provides a simple Q&A to help you determine if you might have COVID:

Do the COVID vaccines work against the omicron variant?

Yes, but not as well, according to early studies. A study from Discovery Health, South Africa's largest private health insurer, shows that two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which provided over 90% protection against infection with the original version of the virus, is only 33% protective against any omicron infection.

That's protection against catching it at all. Full vaccination still provides 70% protection against severe disease or death, the study showed, although it declined somewhat in people over 60 and more so for people over 70. it's too soon to say for sure how well. A previous study suggested that booster shots and previous infection combined with vaccination were both effective.

COVID-19 vaccine developers Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have all pledged to reformulate their shots to protect against omicron “if needed,” which may include an omicron-specific booster.

“It is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves,” Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in a statement. “The mutations in the omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”

Fact check:6 of the most persistent misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines

What if I'm vaccinated? Can I still get COVID?

Yes. The three approved COVID vaccines are amazingly effective, but they're not 100%. A very small number of fully-vaccinated people will still get sick.

Those vaccinated can still become “breakthrough cases.” They may not feel sick. Still, they could carry similar viral loads to unvaccinated carriers in their nose and throat, according to the CDC. Although delta isn’t necessarily any more lethal than other variant, it can kill huge numbers of people simply because it infects so many more, said Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

Also, if you are vaccinated, you may be protected against the virus but you can still spread it to others who may not be vaccinated or may be immunocompromised.

What if I've had COVID before? Am I immune now?

While previous infection helps your body fight off reinfection, it is still possible to get COVID again. And it may be even easier with omicron.

People infected longer ago with earlier variants are at higher risk of reinfection with omicron, South African studies have shown, with people infected in their first wave early last year having a 73% chance of reinfection. Those infected in its most recent delta wave have a 40% risk of reinfection with omicron, the new study showed.

A preliminary briefing released by the United Kingdom Friday showed an approximately three- to eight-fold increased risk of reinfection with the omicron variant.

'It was just a matter of time':How scientists in San Francisco found the first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant in the US

What is the omicron variant of COVID?

Also called B.1.1.529, WHO designated the variant a “variant of concern”  on Nov. 26 and named it omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.

WHO began using the Greek alphabet as a variant classification system in May to simplify understanding and avoid stigmatizing countries where they’re first identified.

South Africa reported the first case of the omicron variant to WHO on Nov. 24. Its first known infection was from samples collected Nov. 9, but Botswana also had samples collected Nov. 11 with the variant present. WHO lists "multiple countries" for its earliest documented samples as a result.

UF studies:UF Health researcher mapped omicron variant's mutations: Here's what he found

More:Study shows COVID-19 spread in U.S., Europe before tests found it, gives insight on omicron

How do you pronounce omicron?

Take your pick. There isn't a single, agreed-upon English pronunciation of the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.

Omicron can be pronounced both AH-muh-kraan or OH-muh-kraan, according to Merriam-Webster. The New Oxford English Dictionary offers o-MIKE-ron. Some British English speakers have gone with OH-my-kraan.

Omicron, the newest coronavirus variant:How to pronounce it, how it got its Greek name, and what it means

What precautions should I take against the new COVID-19 variant?

Whatever new variant comes along, take the same steps that have been effective at preventing or reducing the risk of COVID infection: vaccination, masks in indoor public places or around vulnerable people, social distancing, boosters if you received your first shots more than six months ago. Pay attention to the COVID numbers in your area; if there are a higher number of cases and a lower percentage of vaccinated people you may want to take more precautions.

Anyone who gathered with non-household members over the holiday should consider getting tested for COVID-19, Swann said. She also urged anyone who has traveled away from their community to get tested.

Omicron precautions:CDC director says recommendations for protection the same, 'regardless of the variant'

If a new COVID-19n variant spreads here, will Florida see more lockdowns, mask mandates or vaccinate mandates?

No, according to Governor Ron DeSantis, who said at an event in Oldsmar that there would be no further lockdowns or other restrictions because of the omicron variant.

A special session of the Florida Legislature, demanded by DeSantis to undermine the COVID safety measures for large businesses from the Biden administration and stop local governments and schools from enacting their own, produced four laws, which added more opt-out options from federal COVID rules and banned all government and school COVID-related mandates, with stiff fines for violations.

Are vaccine mandates banned in Florida now? What happened in the Legislative Special Session

Should I get a flu shot?

Yes. Influenza is still a dangerous virus and flu shots, while not perfect, still help a great deal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that, with rare exceptions, everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every season. Public health experts say vaccination is vital to protect individuals, communities and to avoid burdening already overtaxed health care systems.

"The big risk here is that our healthcare system has limited capacity. In the winter, it usually hits that capacity in many places absent COVID, and flu is often a big contributor," Dan Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety and a professor in the Department of International Health at Hopkins University said during a press briefing. 

If you are prone to catching the flu or colds, you may consider adapting some of the measures used to prevent COVID. Last year influenza virtually disappeared, in large part because of widespread adherence to COVID safety measures – social distancing, mask-wearing and hand washing.

Flu shots:When should I get one? What about the COVID booster? Everything to know.

More:Is it safe to get a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time? Experts explain

Stressing health care systems:More than 40% of Americans may not get a flu shot this year, which could spell trouble during COVID-19

Other CDC recommendations 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer in a pinch.
  • Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
  • Stay 6 feet from people outside the home.
  • Wear a snugly fitting mask.
  • Get a full course of a COVID-19 vaccine and a booster if it's been six months since your first Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine series or two months since your J&J vaccine.

Contributors: Adrianna Rodriguez, Ryan W. Miller, Elizabeth Weise, USA Today

C. A. Bridges is a Digital Producer for the USA TODAY Network, working with several newsrooms across Florida. Local journalists work hard to keep you informed about the things you care about, and you can support them by subscribing to your local news organizationRead more articles by Chris here and follow him on Twitter at @cabridges