If it’s not COVID,
what is it?

Learn how to recognize the symptoms and prevent illness.

Feeling sick can be especially concerning these days. You may be wondering if you have the flu, COVID-19 or a cold. The illnesses all share similar symptoms, which can make it hard to distinguish what, exactly, is putting you under the weather.

“Since the start of the school season, we have been seeing an increase in upper respiratory illness,” says Dr. Azi Shirazi, medical director of Sharp Rees-Stealy Urgent Care Centers. “Many of these respiratory cases are COVID-19; influenza; rhinovirus; and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, which can cause severe disease, such as pneumonia in infants under 1 year of age.”

The rise of flu and RSV

COVID-19 is the most common viral infection causing illness severe enough to require hospitalization for those who are not vaccinated. And the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are behind an increase in cases this year. But Dr. Shirazi says more cases of the other respiratory illnesses have also been reported in their offices and urgent care clinics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the circulation of respiratory viruses other than COVID-19 drastically slowed, and flu viruses and RSV circulated at historically low levels during the first year of the pandemic. This was largely due to prevention measures, such as masking, social distancing, reduced travel and isolation.

However, in 2021, influenza and other respiratory virus activity increased later in the year at an unusually rapid pace. The rise in flu and RSV cases — both of which can lead to hospitalization for acutely ill young children, people with compromised immune systems and older adults — paired with the possibility of another COVID-19 surge, is leaving some hospitals concerned that intensive care units will once again become overwhelmed.

“This season, we expect a similar — or possibly worse — situation with flu and COVID due to a decrease in prevention measures such as masking,” says Dr. Shirazi. “There is reason to be worried. Australia just experienced its worst flu season in recent years and what happens in the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season often foreshadows our flu season in the north.”

For older adults and children, the flu can be more dangerous. “Young children may be especially at risk this season. We have a population of one-, two-, and three-year-old’s who will be experiencing influenza for the first time, with no preexisting immunity to it,” she says.

Isolation’s effect on the immune system

This raises the question of whether our immune systems may have weakened during the several months we isolated and wore face masks while in public. According to Dr. Shirazi, it’s less likely that COVID prevention measures led to later increases in illness, and more likely that our immune systems were negatively affected in other ways.

“By the time a person reaches adulthood, their immune system has already had exposure to plenty of bacteria and is able to mount an attack against invaders,” she says. “The immune system develops rapidly in early childhood and provides remarkable lifelong protection against most infections.”

But there are known psychological risks of isolation that can negatively impact our immune system. Dr. Shirazi says stress and loneliness have been associated with decreased immune function. So, if social distancing or isolation produce significant stress or loneliness, this can adversely affect the immune system.

Steps to take to prevent illness

Common sense tells us that being among more people in public spaces will lead to increased exposure to germs. To avoid becoming sick with any of the currently spreading viruses, the CDC recommends:

  • Washing hands often with soap and water and using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Staying away from people who are sick
  • Disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, including toys and doorknobs

To avoid catching the flu and COVID-19, Dr. Shirazi reports that current efforts to reduce the spread — especially vaccination — are working. If you have not yet received your annual flu vaccine, both the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine booster can be administered at the same time, though experts recommend receiving the shots in different arms.

“The best way to prevent influenza and COVID-19 is to get your annual flu shot and your COVID-19 vaccine booster shot,” she says. “So far, it looks like this year’s flu vaccine is a good match for the circulating strains.”

How to respond to respiratory illness

So, what should people do if they begin to experience respiratory symptoms but are unsure whether it’s a common cold, COVID-19 or something in-between?

“It’s a good idea to get tested for COVID if you develop cold or flu symptoms and contact your physician if you are concerned about your symptoms,” Dr. Shirazi says. “If you test positive, you should isolate at home to avoid spreading the virus.”

Dr. Shirazi also advises people to seek immediate medical care if they develop any of the following symptoms after a positive COVID-19 test result:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion or altered mental state
  • Inability to wake up or stay awake
  • Pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds

Doctors may also test for other illnesses, such as strep throat and the flu, and will treat patients accordingly if their results are positive. If you are diagnosed with any of these illnesses, the CDC recommends you take any prescribed medications and stay home while you have symptoms — and at least 24 hours after your fever is gone — except to get medical care. Your fever is only considered truly gone if it goes down without the use of fever-reducing medication.

If you test negative for COVID-19 or other illnesses and don't require further medical care, you can likely treat any symptoms causing you discomfort at home. “Stay home, drink plenty of fluids, eat a healthy diet and give it time,” Dr. Shirazi says. “Most colds run their course within a few days to a couple of weeks. If needed, you may take over-the-counter medications to ease fever, aches, cough or congestion.”

Visit our COVID-19 resource center for more information about vaccinations, screening, testing and treatment.

Source: Sharp Health News

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