Cold, flu or COVID-19? Tampa Bay doctors weigh in on symptoms, testing for these illnesses

Flu sick
Posted at 5:48 PM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-02 03:27:51-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Feeling under the weather lately? You’re probably in the same boat as other people who are experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms. Tampa Bay area doctors are shedding light on the similarities and differences of symptoms for a cold, the flu and COVID-19 and share what you should do if you’re sick.

“I’m not surprised. As we stop wearing masks, all the pent up viruses that were contained by masks, flu virus, RSV, rhinoviruses that cause cold, and COVID too, are now starting to spread again,” said Dr. John Sinnott, an epidemiologist at Tampa General Hospital and Chairman of Internal Medicine at USF.

When looking at the symptoms, he says colds don’t really have much of a fever and a person doesn’t ache all over.

“It’s limited to their upper respiratory tract. They have a runny nose, a sore throat, and they generally don’t feel good, and they might have a temp up to 100.5,” said Sinnott. “So they're sort of out of the picture.”

He says when someone comes in, classic flu is fever, cough, and low back pain. With COVID-19, the CDC says it seems to spread more easily than the flu. The CDC notes that compared to the flu, COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people, and it states, "COVID-19 can also take longer before people show symptoms and people can be contagious for longer."

“COVID is loss of taste and smell, a feeling of intense malaise and fatigue, and aching all over, whereas the back pain is very specific to the lower back,” said Sinnott.

Because some of the symptoms of the flu, COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses are similar, the CDC says the difference between them can't be made based on symptoms alone. It says you’ll need a test to confirm a diagnosis, while reminding that people can be infected with both the flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 at the same time.

“We’ve contained these viruses for so long that now, many people have fading immunity. Often, immunity to viruses only lasts a year,” said Sinnott. “We’ve been locked down a year, so now we have a bunch of susceptible people wandering around and getting upper respiratory infections.”

Especially with the rise of the Delta variant, Dr. Sinnott encourages everyone with upper respiratory symptoms to get tested for COVID-19, and he suggests getting vaccinated if you haven’t already. Masks may also be useful as an extra layer of protection.

“The masks are highly protective for any respiratory disease,” said Sinnott. “They’re really our first line of defense, and I’m at the point now where I simply wear a mask all the time.”