Is it cold, flu or COVID? How you can tell the difference

Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 11:48 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 30, 2021 at 2:58 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. - Lines at COVID testing sites are backed up in the two-state region as people check their health amid the latest wave of coronavirus.

This time, the surge is being fueled by the omicron variant. Since it’s far more contagious than its predecessors, it’s sweeping the nation like wildfire and causing concern despite apparently being milder than other mutations.

Because of its mildness, the symptoms could easily be confused with other illnesses like the cold or flu — or even allergies.

“Often the symptoms with COVID-19 at the beginning anyway are a little bit milder, so a scratchy throat, maybe a little elevation in temperature and often specific to COVID-19 is the loss of taste and smell, but also a profound sense of fatigue,” said Dr. Rodger MacArthur, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical College of Georgia.

MacArthur says people with the flu usually have a higher fever and body aches.

Dr. Helmut Albrecht, an infectious disease specialist at Prisma Health in South Carolina, says there seem to be more reports of headaches with omicron than with the delta variant of coronavirus. But he said the best way to tell if symptoms are from omicron or the common cold is through testing.

Here’s a comparison based on symptoms listed by the Mayo Clinic:

SymptomCOVIDFluColdAllergies
CoughUsually (dry)UsuallyUsuallySometimes
Muscle achesUsuallyUsuallySometimesNever
TirednessUsuallyUsuallySometimesSometimes
SneezingRarelyNot commonSometimesUsually
Sore throatUsuallyUsuallyUsuallyRarely
Runny/stuffy noseUsuallyUsuallyUsuallyUsually
FeverUsuallyUsuallySometimesNever
Shortness of breathUsuallyUsuallyNot commonNot common
Nausea/vomitingSometimesSometimesNeverNever
New loss of taste/smellUsually (early)RarelySometimesSometimes
Pink eyeSometimesNot commonNot commonSometimes
Itchy nose/eyes/inner ear/mouthNeverNot commonNot commonUsually
DiarrheaSometimesSometimesNeverNever

With so many overlapping symptoms, many are flocking to emergency rooms, which is creating longer wait times around the state — and leading to pleas from the Georgia Department of Public Health and Augusta-area hospitals to stay away unless you’re truly experiencing an emergency.

Especially, don’t go to an emergency room for a COVID test unless your symptoms are severe. But doctors say you definitely should go to the emergency room right away if you are having any type of difficulty breathing, including an intractable cough, where you’re having difficulty catching your breath.

“What makes sense is not to rush to a pharmacy or clinic, urgent care center the morning you wake up with a sore throat. Give it a day or so and start quarantining if you have symptoms, wearing a mask around others, monitor your symptoms, what’s going on with your body and then the next day or so, go get the test,” said MacArthur.

MacArthur says when it comes to detecting COVID, if your symptoms are more than a typical sore throat or seasonal allergies, get a PCR test. For the flu, there’s a test for A and B strains.

If you do have the flu he says to treat it like any other virus and stay home.

“If you have any symptoms, a temperature elevation, sore throat, don’t come to work. Stay at home until the symptoms get better and there is no further temperature,” he said.

Getting tested

To find a Georgia Department of Public Health testing location and register ahead of time to alleviate delays, visit https://dph.georgia.gov/covidtesting.

“We are working with our lab partners to expand testing hours and add testing sites,” DPH said, “however, lines will continue to be long as thousands of Georgians want to get tested.”

In addition to boosting staffing, the Georgia Department of Public Health is extending testing hours at several sites across the region. People can register for testing at the websites listed below or call 706-721-5800 for additional information.

Local DPH testing locations include:

  • Richmond County Health Department, 1916 North Leg Road, Augusta: Monday through Friday, including Jan. 3; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Register at ecphd.com/covidtesting.
  • Augusta University Medical Center, 524 15th St., Augusta: Monday through Saturday except Jan. 1; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Register at https://ecphd.com/aumc-covidtesting.
  • Emanuel County Medical Center, 117 Kite Road, Swainsboro: Monday, Wednesday and Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Register at https://honumg.info/LTSGA014
  • Screven County Health Department, 416 Pine St., Sylvania: Tuesdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Register at https://honumg.info/LTSGA033

From reports by WRDW/WAGT and WGCL/CBS46.