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You’re feeling sick. Is it the flu? Is it a cold? Is it COVID-19?

By Dr. Jillian Harrington, MD on September 7, 2022

Woman coughing

You start to feel a tickle in your throat, you’re feeling fatigued, and it seems like you’re having to blow your nose more often than usual. Those first symptoms of sickness can be stressful and daunting. Is this going to be a mild cold or is it something more serious? Can you get ahead of it and lessen the symptoms? With fall and winter looming we know it can start to get tricky as flu season and back to school hits all at once.  

If you do start to feel sick it’s important to know if you need to isolate yourself from others, stay home from school or work and if there are any medications or supplements you can take to help you feel better and speed up your recovery time. Luckily there are some ways to differentiate between illnesses to help you make the best decisions for yourself and those around you.  

Differentiating Between Illness 

Many of the symptoms for flu, colds and COVID-19 overlap, while early versions of COVID-19 had very specific and unique symptoms such as loss of taste and smell. Newer variants more closely mimic the symptoms of a cold or the flu, so it is becoming very difficult to discern between the three illnesses. In order to truly know what you are ill with; a test is often necessary.  

Testing for Illness  

If you start to feel sick, it’s a good idea to schedule a telehealth visit with a doctor or visit a clinic so you can get tested to know how to move forward. The benefit of telehealth is you can schedule at your convenience and never need to leave home. You save time driving back and forth and waiting for the doctor to see you. You can also receive necessary prescriptions via telehealth.  

As far as testing goes, there are quite a few tests that can test for multiple illnesses at the same time. Alternately there is the ability to test for them one at a time after ruling out certain conditions. For example, if someone is COVID negative and they still feel sick, it might be worth testing for Flu as many of the symptoms overlap between COVID and Flu. There are tests that can assess for Flu and COVID at the same time in the same test, thereby saving time and effort on both the part of the patient and the physician. Faster and easier to rule out and have a definitive answer in one encounter.

Woman getting covid tested with a nasal swab

Etiquette While Sick 

As with any illness, you should practice good hygiene and isolation, if possible, as the best course of action to prevent those around you from becoming ill. Stay home when sick and wear a mask to further prevent the spread of the virus you may have. If you feel like the symptoms are more severe and flu-like, there are treatments that work if you are diagnosed at the early stages of the illness, which can keep you from becoming even more ill for a longer period of time.   

Whether you stay home and isolate when you are sick is a very personal decision and many people will have different viewpoints on this topic. If you can, stay home and rest. This is the best way to protect others and get yourself healthy as quickly as possible. This is not always feasible, so practicing good hygiene, limiting contact with others, and potentially wearing a mask are helpful to keep you and others safe.   

Quarantine and Isolation 

When COVID-19 began spreading quickly, the practice of quarantine became normal. It was not something we commonly practiced for the flu or a cold. As we begin to go back to school and into offices, most unmasked, many are now wondering if quarantine while sick will continue.  

The CDC updates their guidelines on quarantine regularly. While other illnesses such as a cold or strep have been around for many years, COVID-19 is still new, and we are learning about how it mutates and spreads. While we are still behind on vaccine development for COVID-19, it is important to keep following the CDC guidelines and quarantine as recommended. This will help prevent the spread of the virus while we develop the tools to manage it more effectively.   

As we move into flu season, stay aware of how you’re feeling and make sure to take care. Schedule a telehealth visit when needed, get rest when you can and reach out to your providers when you need support.