This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
During the fall and winter, it’s normal to come down with a sore throat or stuffy nose.
Before COVID-19, many would attribute those symptoms to the common cold, knowing rest and fluids would get them back to tip top shape in no time.
However, with the rise of respiratory syncytial virus in Canada, also known as RSV, along with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it can be hard to determine which illness you actually have.
With this year’s “tripledemic,” your cold symptoms could actually mean that you have COVID-19, the flu or RSV, which make you sicker than the regular cold virus. Moreover, these conditions are extremely contagious, so it’s important you do your best to avoid spreading your illness to others.
So, what’s the difference between a cold, the flu, RSV and COVID-19? Read on to learn how your symptoms can give you important clues.
The common cold
Earlier this week, the New York Times released a chart outlining the nuances among symptoms and illnesses running rampant this time of year.
Colds are probably the least severe virus you can catch, with a 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, headaches, muscle pain and body aches.
Sometimes, patients with the flu can have a sore throat, a 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 in North America being overloaded with RSV patients.
According to the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases, RSV is a virus that infects the respiratory tract (i.e. the lungs and airways).
Although RSV can affect anyone of any age, it’s 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 for infants and older adults with a history of congestive heart failure, asthma or other breathing issues.
The symptoms that occur most often include coughing, wheezing and a runny or stuffy nose.
Sometimes, patients can have headaches, a fever, difficulty breathing and sneezing. Rarely, people with RSV have fatigue, muscle aches, a sore throat, loss of taste or smell, vomiting or diarrhea.
Despite common misconceptions, COVID-19 is still 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, meaning you can spread the virus before you know you’re sick.
Most commonly, patients experience cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, headaches and a sore throat. Sometimes people will have a fever, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, a runny nose, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhea. Rarely, patients will be wheezing.
What COVID-19 variants are the most common?
At the end of 2021, the Omicron variant moved at a rapid pace. Since then, new variants have 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 Nov. 24, 2021 after it was detected in South Africa. It has since spread to multiple countries.
Omicron has been classified as a variant of concern by the WHO and the organization says it is coordinating with many researchers around the world to better understand the new strains.
How to tell the difference between COVID-19, the flu, RSV and the common cold
With the possibility of many Canadians getting sick this cold season, it’s important to honestly and accurately assess your most common symptoms. However, making that distinction is more difficult than it sounds as many symptoms can overlap.
The one symptom you can experience with COVID-19 and not with influenza, 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 “useful tool to differentiate.”
With a variety of infections giving off similar effects, self-diagnosing is not a safe option.
When experiencing any of the mentioned symptoms, 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 versed in ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19, RSV, the cold and the flu — and experts advise more of the same, especially when it comes to travelling.
“I think it’s ambitious and somewhat naive to think that just keeping people from travelling is going to change the amount of Omicron in this country,” Barrett said. “What we do inside our borders and in our own towns and 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. When it comes to what you can be doing, the recommendations haven’t changed.
Wearing a good mask (experts have advised that Canadians ditch their single-layer cloth masks in favour of medical masks), social distancing especially when indoors, staying home when sick and washing your hands regularly are good practices everyone should be maintaining throughout the cold and flu season and the pandemic.
Moreover, get your booster vaccine and flu shot. Health officials are urging Canadians that the best way to protect from COVID-19 and the flu is to get vaccinated if you are eligible.
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