Is it COVID, allergies, a cold or the flu? What you should know about each condition

A new coronavirus variant is spreading amid rising cold and flu cases, and they all have overlapping symptoms.

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It's a time full of sick symptoms, as seasonal allergies arrive, cold and flu cases rise and a new COVID-19 variant appears. (Photo via Getty Images)
It's a time full of sick symptoms, as seasonal allergies arrive, cold and flu cases rise and a new COVID-19 variant appears. (Photo via Getty Images) (SimpleImages via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

It's that time of year again: Sniffles, chills and stuffy noses are, unfortunately, back in style.

Cold and flu cases are rising across Canada and on top of that, health officials are sounding the alarm over a new COVID-19 variant causing a spike in cases. The XBB 1.5 subvariant of Omicron is now the dominant strain in Canada.

Overlapping symptoms between COVID-19, RSV, the flu and colds, can make taking care of yourself confusing.

Read on to know what's currently happening with all the respiratory illnesses, and how to tell the symptoms apart.

What can you expect from cold, flu and COVID this fall?

India has seen a surge in new COVID-19 cases due to the virus's new variant, XBB.1.16. (Photo via Getty Images)
It could be a busy season for healthcare professionals. (Photo via Getty Images) (Thana Prasongsin via Getty Images)

According Dr. Andrew Pinto, this season could be "fairly severe" for illnesses in what some are calling a tripledemic.

"Many of us in public health and in practice are worried that we're going to have a fairly severe respiratory illness season with a mix of COVID, influenza, and other viruses like RSV," he told Yahoo Canada.

Pinto, a public health specialist at the University of Toronto and the lead investigator of CanTreatCOVID, said experts look at the southern hemisphere to detect trends in seasonal illnesses, as they have them earlier on.

"They had quite a lot of COVID circulating, about two-thirds COVID and then one-third other viral illnesses," he said.

"One of the reasons I think we're very worried is that many people in Canada, and in similar countries, it's been quite a while since they either had a COVID infection or a vaccine. And so there's likely more susceptibility in the population to the latest circulating COVID strain."

What's the difference in symptoms between COVID, flu, allergies or a cold?

Pinto explained it's "very, very hard" to differentiate between the symptoms of these respiratory illnesses, especially COVID-19 and influenza.

"There's a lot of overlap... There may be some slight differences, particularly that we saw early in the COVID pandemic was around the loss of smell and taste. That still is somewhat of a hallmark of of COVID."

He also added the persistence of symptoms after the initial infection is more common with COVID-19 than other viruses.

"It's important to note COVID is still evolving, and we don't know how new strains will really act and what kind of symptoms they will give us."

<a data-i13n="cpos:1;pos:1" href="" rel="sponsored" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Data from Mayo Clinic;cpos:1;pos:1;elm:context_link;itc:0" class="link ">Data from Mayo Clinic</a>.

What to do if you have overlapping symptoms?

Pinto said a "really important message" is that anyone who is experiencing respiratory illness — including the symptoms above — should do an at-home test for COVID-19.

"These test kits are being made available to many provinces and territories, for free through grocery stores, through pharmacies, through health clinics.

"Some of the benefits of doing a test to see if you have COVID or not are, it helps you reduce the spread to other people, because it will change kind of your behavior," said the Upstream Lab director.

It can also help those who are feeling sick and might need to take time off from work. "Potentially, if you develop long-COVID and need to need to seek disability, accommodation or financial support, that can help with your claim," he added.

I would encourage people, if they have respiratory illness of cough, cold fever, sore throat, they should try and do a home kit.Dr. Andrew Pinto

He claimed in the future, we could see multi-pathogen tests available to narrow down whether an illness is COVID-19, influenza or RSV.

What can Canadians do to stay safe this fall?

An infectious disease specialist explained that most people now have immunity against COVID from vaccines, infections or both. (Photo via Getty Images)
Vaccines are still important, the doctor says. (Photo via Getty Images) (Jackyenjoyphotography via Getty Images)

Canadian health officials and doctors are advising of COVID-19 best practices this fall, which can also help curb the spread of other viruses.

While the country no longer has testing or masking mandates in place like it used to, there are still protocols Canadians can follow.

According to Pinto, the most important move is getting vaccinated.

"We know that a lot of people are tired of, of the pandemic and want to just move on," he began, before adding COVID is here to stay.

We knew early on that this virus was going to be with us and stay with us — similar to influenza.Dr. Andrew Pinto

"Getting one's COVID shot is really important, getting your influenza vaccine, and if you're eligible, getting your RSV vaccine is going to be important to helping protect oneself."

Pinto, also encouraged anyone who does get infected with COVID-19, to reach out to CanTreatCOVID within the first few days of infection.

"We really still don't have a good sense of what works and for whom to treat COVID when people are acutely infected. So we're doing this study... We're studying which treatments work and for whom," he explained the program.

"It's a really important way to help figure out how we can not only treat acute COVID, but also reduce long COVID as well."

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