Yes, We're All Out Here Confusing Our Colds for COVID Again
It's possible it's been a solid year and a half since you actually got sick with the typical colds and flus of the season (hey, maybe masks work after all). So it's only natural for that first faint scratch of a sore throat to bring up a flurry of questions: Is it "just a cold," or could it be the flu, or COVID? Should I be in quarantine right now?
The truth is, especially as fall festivities and indoor gatherings ramp up, you could be sick with anything right now, even if you have been vaccinated against Covid-19 and the flu. (Reminder: If you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, the CDC recommends doing so by the end of October!) So it's important to stay vigilant about your symptoms to make sure you're keeping the people around you safe.
What gets confusing is that with COVID, the "first symptom" often isn't the same from person to person, and it could start with a very similar feeling to the common cold. "Many cold symptoms overlap with the first symptoms of COVID infection, including sore throat, runny nose or headache," says Jarita Hagans, M.D., a board-certified family practice physician and owner of Zion Family Practice in Washington, D.C.
Then, once whichever sickness you have continues on, the symptoms might continue to overlap — leading to confusion and anxiety. "Fatigue, fever (particularly low-grade fevers of 100 to 101 degrees), muscle aches, and cough are all symptoms that could be caused by a cold, the flu, or COVID," adds NYC-based internist Shirin Peters, M.D. But the experts agree that in general, people are going to feel sicker if they're infected with the flu or COVID — and for longer.
Bottom line: Just because you're fully vaccinated (and even if you've recently gotten a booster!), don't assume it isn't COVID. Sure, if you're vaccinated, you'll likely have a milder case, and be less likely to end up being hospitalized, points out Julita Mir, M.D. practicing infectious diseases physician and Chief Medical Officer of Community Care Cooperative (C3), but vaccinated or not, you can still have the same classic COVID symptoms, including fever, aches, cough, and congestion.
To better understand your cold-like, flu-like symptoms, check out the checklist below.
Can you still taste and smell?
One tell-tale way to decipher whether you have a cold or COVID is your ability to taste and smell, even if you're stuffed up. "You can sense a change in taste and smell with cold or the flu if your nose is congested. However, complete loss of taste or smell is more common with COVID infection," says Dr. Hagans.
What kind of cough do you have?
Pay attention to how you're coughing and what you're coughing up. "We see different presentations of cough, but dry cough seems common with Covid-19," Dr. Mir explains. If you have a wet cough with more mucus, you might have another respiratory infection (that includes a common cold).
Are you experiencing random symptoms like pink eye or a rash?
The experts note that conjunctivitis is one of the COVID symptoms they've been seeing — and pink eye, while possible with a cold or the flu, isn't as common with just a cold. A rash, which can vary from discoloration and swelling on the toes, to itchy and patchy hives just about anywhere else on the body, could also be a key sign of COVID, and might be the only symptom some people notice, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
Do you have G.I. symptoms?
If you're also sick to your stomach, in addition to feeling flu-like, it might be something more serious than a cold. "Diarrhea and vomiting are less likely with a cold than it is with flu and COVID infection," says Dr. Hagans.
Are other people in your household sick?
Without getting a negative COVID test result, there's really no concrete way to diagnose yourself with just a cold. But it may help to do a little bit of contact tracing where possible, to figure out who you may have been exposed to. "Sometimes it is indicative if other family members get sick and test negative for COVID," explains Dr. Mir. For now though, the guidelines suggest going for a test when you're feeling sick, she says.
Here's your sick-day action plan:
Get tested ASAP.
Obviously, you won't definitely be able to rule out COVID until you get tested yourself. "I recommend getting a COVID test for cold-like symptoms at the onset of the earliest symptom, and especially if you plan to be in close contact with someone elderly, pregnant, immune-compromised, or unvaccinated," Dr. Peters says. That means when you first start to feel crappy, don't wait it out to see if you get better — just get a PCR test to be absolutely certain.
If your test comes back negative, you can probably assume that you have influenza or another virus, Dr. Mir adds. Unsure of how to proceed with a negative test and contagious symptoms? Call your primary care doctor for guidance, or to head to a walk-in clinic to get swabbed for the flu and treated with Tamiflu in case it's one of the strands of the flu.
When in doubt, quarantine.
In the event that you're not able to go get tested or get an at-home test kit right when you start to experience symptoms, Dr. Hagans recommends quarantining in a separate room, away from other people in the home, for at least 10 days, or until you get a negative test result. If you and your housemates cross paths at any point, both of you should mask up to prevent the spread of anything, she says.
Get a booster shot if you're eligible.
Were you fully vaccinated more than six months ago? It might be time for a booster (you could end up with more severe COVID symptoms since your immunity against the coronavirus has weakened), says Dr. Hagans. If you have underlying health conditions that could compromise immunity, work in a high-risk environment, or got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine more than two months ago, the CDC states that you're all set to get another shot.