COVID, cold or flu? Pay attention to timing, symptoms, doctor says

As Florida breaks records for new daily COVID-19 cases and health officials warn of a bleak winter for unvaccinated Americans, the rapid spread of the seemingly milder omicron variant has many asking how to tell the difference between the virus and the flu or the common cold.

Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a distinguished USF Health professor at the College of Public Health, explains there are different factors involved in determining which illness you're dealing with when experiencing congestion or tiredness.

"Well (omicron COVID-19 is) very similar to a cold," Dr. Unnasch told FOX 13. "Generally, it's sort of a runny stuffy nose, a little bit of a sore throat, many people are seeing. One of the sort of more characteristic symptoms that I’ve been hearing about is a little bit more body aches and primarily in the lower back…a pretty good case of fatigue I'm hearing. People feel pretty fatigued for a few days after they get the omicron variant."

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Notably, fewer patients are reporting severe fever as a symptom when infected with omicron.

"You still are likely to get a very low-grade fever, particularly if you’ve been fully vaccinated," Dr. Unnasch explained, "but nothing that’s anything like the flu or what we were seeing with the delta variant or the alpha variant previously. Interestingly enough, apparently, the loss of taste and smell, which was really very common among the earlier variants, is no longer really being seen with the omicron variant."

In terms of determining whether you're dealing with the new COVID variant versus the flu virus, pay attention to the timing of the onset.

"A flu will generally come on really suddenly, hits you like a ton of bricks with a pretty high fever and a cough and then followed by congestion." Dr. Unnasch said. "The first symptoms of the omicron and the cold are very similar. Generally, a tickly throat or a stuffy nose or something like that that will then degenerate into more congestion and a kind of fatigue feeling and maybe some lower back aches as well."

Unnasch points out that it can be very difficult to tell the difference between a cold or the flu.

"They are only seven known coronaviruses that infect human beings. Four out of the seven basically cause common colds every year," Dr. Unnasch said. "So, I think we’re seeing here is a virus that's mutating and evolving in such a way that it’s going to be the fifth common cold virus that we’re going to be seeing circulating all the time."

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So, at what point should someone get tested?

"I would probably get tested -- if I could and the tests are readily available -- if you start to develop some cold symptoms, Dr. Unnasch said. "But with the tests not being really available right now, I probably would wait to see if I start to have any more symptoms, like difficulty breathing or some of the other. If it starts to feel a lot worse than I think I would go ahead and go to a testing facility and get myself tested."

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant.

"However," the agency says on its website, "breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur. With other variants, like Delta, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. The recent emergence of Omicron further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters."