Is it COVID, a cold, the flu or allergies? How to tell symptoms apart — and how to stay safe

A Toronto-based infectious disease specialist says things are looking up for spring when it comes to some illnesses.

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.

A woman suffering from hay fever, flu, COVID or allergies while sunbathing in her garden. (Photo via Getty Images)
Spring is finally here for Canada, and the outlook for illnesses like flu and COVID looks positive. (Photo via Getty Images)

A soggy, rainy spring has arrived for a good chunk of Canada, and while many people across the country might be down about the wet weather, things are looking up when it comes to flu season.

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Isaac Bogoch told Yahoo Canada influenza is winding down at this point of the year, and there's very little of the virus circulating across the country currently.

"In a matter of weeks, there will be virtually no influenza circulating," he explained. "So that's obviously good news, and we're about to see that season wind to a close as we move our way through spring."

The Toronto-based researcher's sentiment echoes the latest FluWatch report released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). From March 31 and April 6, nine per cent of tests for influenza came back positive, with a total of 2,611 lab detections reported. Moreover, the number of FluWatchers reporting cough and fever is currently below expected levels for this time of year.

COVID is interesting, too, just looking at a snapshot of where we are with that.Dr. Isaac Bogoch

Moreover, COVID-19 also looks to be taking a back seat this season. While the virus is still circulating, Bogoch explained there won't be as many cases as we might've seen in the winter.

"Most metrics across the country show much lower rates of virus circulating," he shared. "All the signals, wastewater signals, hospital signals, death signals, all of those signals are much lower now compared to the last few weeks and months."

The PHAC indicated in a COVID-19 summary updated on April 9 that indicators for the virus continue to slowly decrease or remain at low levels. Additionally, overall outbreak incidence has been decreasing since early January.

However, how can you exactly tell if you have COVID-19 or the flu, or possibly another condition like a cold or allergies? Overlapping symptoms between each one can make taking care of yourself confusing. Read on to know what's happening with all the respiratory illnesses, and how to tell the symptoms apart.

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

Sick woman recovering on couch with medication and tissues. (Photo via Getty Images)
High-risk people are currently being recommended to get a COVID-19 vaccine for the season. (Photo via Getty Images)

Experts are sharing that Canadians don't have too much to worry about when it comes to these illnesses this spring, as indicators show case levels are dropping. Moreover, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) released recommendations in January for administering COVID-19 vaccinations this season. Its suggestions target Canadians with a heightened vulnerability to severe illness caused by the virus.

According to the NACI, people who should seek out another dose of the latest vaccine to better protect them against the current variants of Omicron include:

  • Anyone aged 65 and up

  • Adults living in long-term care homes or senior living centres

  • Anyone six months of age or older who is immunocompromised

"We'll probably see much more broad vaccine recommendations as we enter the fall and we expect rates of COVID to go up," Bogoch said. "There's lower rates but not absence of COVID circulating. The risk of transmission is much lower this spring compared to, for example, in the winter."

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

University of Toronto public health specialist Dr. Andrew Pinto recently 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," he told Yahoo Canada. "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."

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What do you 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," said the Upstream Lab director.

"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 behaviour."

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 spring?

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)

"There's nothing new in this round, absolutely nothing," Bogoch said when it comes to protecting yourself against these kinds of illnesses.

"The two take-home points for me are that we had an influenza season this year that was basically comparable to pre-pandemic influenza seasons, and the season is really winding to a close now. ... The second point is COVID circulates year-round. ... Even though it's not absent, it's still much, much, much lower than it was in the past."

Still, Canadians can still take up COVID-19 best practices this spring, 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. For those who are eligible, getting vaccinated is the most important move, according to Pinto.

"We know that a lot of people are tired of the pandemic and want to just move on," he began, before adding COVID-19 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

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.

"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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