You rarely leave your house. When you do, you wear a mask and slather your hands in sanitizer. And yet, there it is — a tickle in your throat. You’re running a fever. Your COVID-19 test results come back: “not detected.” So what did you catch?
It’s not likely to be the flu, given that influenza strains have barely been seen anywhere in the United States this season. But keep in mind, quadrillions of viruses circulate on Earth, and hundreds of thousands of varieties infect mammals like us. Many of those viruses are hardier — if less dangerous — than SARS-CoV-2, the one that causes COVID-19.
“Masks are not 100 percent. Some viruses can get through,” said Dr. Sarah Winslow of PeaceHealth’s Union Station Clinic in east Vancouver. “What we’re seeing is way less flu, but there are certainly people who have other colds and viral illnesses.”
Symptoms often overlap with those of COVID-19, including fever, congestion, runny nose, sore throat, cough, fatigue and muscle aches.
“The symptom of loss of smell is unique to COVID,” Winslow said, adding that the novel coronavirus is also more likely to cause severe headaches and diarrhea.
“Some people who don’t have COVID get other illnesses,” Winslow said. “The incidence is way down compared to normal.”
Illnesses lumped together as “the common cold” can be caused by rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, adenovirus, human metapneumovirus and coronaviruses (other than the infamous SARS-CoV-2), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As we head into spring, seasonal allergies further complicate the mix with runny noses, nasal congestion and coughs.
“People who have a new sore throat or a fever should be tested for COVID. Allergies don’t give you a fever,” Winslow said.
She’s encouraging her patients whose allergies flare each spring to begin their antihistamine regimen early.
“It’s OK to reach out to ask your provider what you should do,” Winslow said. “We can’t take our risk down to zero. Unless we have zero contact, there’s some risk of getting other illnesses.”