Autumn Ushers in Spike of Confusing COVID-19 Cases Amid Common Cold Symptoms in Canada

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The arrival of autumn in Canada signals not only the vision of brightly coloured leaves, the taste of hot lattes, and the sight of grey skies, but also a marked increase in instances of sniffling and coughing. The tricky part is deciphering whether these symptoms signal the flu, common cold, allergies, or COVID-19. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer; the symptom overlap between these conditions and COVID-19 is substantial and sometimes confusing.

According to Dr. Zain Chagla, differentiating between COVID-19 and other typical respiratory viruses that commonly appear at this season would be challenging based solely on symptoms. Fever, cough, sore throat, and fatigue, the dominant symptoms of COVID-19, are also frequent manifestations of other respiratory illnesses like influenza, complicating the picture.

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COVID-19’s unique symptoms such as loss of taste or smell, have become less prevalent as new variants of the virus emerge, making it even more difficult to differentiate between COVID and other illnesses. According to Chagla, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at McMaster University, complaints about COVID-19 symptoms are now more resemblant of typical colds, which blurs the line of distinction between this disease and typical upper respiratory tract infections during this season.

Determining if your flu-like symptoms result from the flu or COVID-19 necessitates testing for the virus. If feeling unwell, particularly with a fever, it’s advisable to stay home and recover.

As we move further into the fall, there’s a noticeable surge in COVID-19 cases across the country. Despite the lesser threat level, thanks to vaccine coverage and the emergence of milder variants, COVID-19 remains potent, capable of causing severe illness or hospitalization and possessing a higher infectivity compared to similar viruses.

According to Dr. Tara Moriarty, an infectious diseases researcher and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry, considering the present circumstances, a person feeling ill is more likely to have COVID-19 rather than influenza or Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). Moriarty recounts the difficulty of tracking the levels of COVID-19 infection in the country due to the decreased frequency of provincial and federal reporting.

Influenza, a respiratory illness infecting the nose and throat caused by Influenza A and B viruses, typically exhibits symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, headaches, a runny or stuffy nose, and muscle aches. Meanwhile, the term ‘cold’ refers to less severe infections with related symptoms but no significant fever.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), primarily affecting children but also infecting adults, has more lower respiratory tract symptoms compared to other respiratory viruses.

However, even among these subtle signs, discerning which illness you have without testing is virtually impossible, particularly with symptoms common to multiple diseases. Hence, it’s advisable to stay at home when feeling ill, and, if necessary, to wear a mask in public.

While the loss of taste or smell is less common now, this symptom remains a significant indication that an illness could likely be COVID-19. However, Chagla points out this symptom is far less evident than it was in 2020, and only a minority of people currently present it.

Over time, as new variants emerged, there was a noted change in common symptoms, with upper respiratory ones becoming more frequent and lower respiratory ones less so. Despite these changes, COVID-19 remains more dangerous than conditions like influenza, leading to higher rates of death and hospitalizations.

Diagnosis requires testing, and the availability and location of tests varies by province or territory. Health units and pharmacies may offer these tests. Moriarty advises people not feeling well to stay home from work or school if possible and to continue testing for COVID-19 over a few days if symptoms persist.

To combat COVID-19, antiviral medication Paxlovid is available in Canada. It can limit the severity of the disease when taken early. Influenza vaccines as well as antivirals, COVID-19 vaccines and antivirals, and an RSV vaccine for those over 60 are currently available. So approaching health providers about trying to stay well during the season could be beneficial.