It’s that time of year again. We’re getting reminders to get our annual flu shot AND a COVID-19 booster. You can just hear the chorus of coughing, sneezing and scratchy low voices that mark winter in Minnesota.
Certainly, a cold or “bug” comes with the territory during our cold winter months. Eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep are a great foundation for battling the “bugs”, but how do you know if you’re outmatched?
The most common viruses affecting Minnesotans this winter are colds, the flu and COVID-19. It can be tough telling the three apart. Afterall, they do share many common symptoms like a cough, fever, chills or headache. Severity can help differentiate a cold from the flu. But, not always. Let’s take a look at each one and then the symptoms, common to all three, that cannot be ignored and may require a visit to The Urgency Room or ER.
Common cold or virus
We all know the signs, a runny nose, mild fever, slight cough, irritability, etc. The common cold is brought on by about 200 viruses that lead to mild respiratory symptoms. One symptom very common to colds (and not so much to the flu or COVID-19) is sneezing. Most of us will bounce back from a cold in three to seven days, possibly sooner if you hydrate, sleep and take great care of yourself. But, for some, that seemingly mild cold can take a turn.
Influenza or flu
Flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses, which differ from year to year. Symptoms, which tend to strike suddenly, include fever (typically, 101 degrees or higher), chills, muscle or body aches, cough, sore throat, runny nose, congestion, headache, fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath. People who have the flu may be more likely to experience nasal congestion and a productive cough than those with COVID-19, according to a study published in the Journal of Infection. Shortness of breath also seems to be more common in those with the flu, according to a study published in Microbes and Infection. Usually, symptoms of the flu appear one to four days after infection and it’s important to note that seasonal flu (and COVID-19) tends to be more serious in adults older than 65. In the first year of the pandemic, when Minnesotans were social distancing, the flu virus took a bit of a back seat. Last year we saw it reemerge with an estimated 650,000 hospitalizations and 58,000 deaths nationally, according to the CDC.
How this virus affects each person can be very unique. Some say it feels like a cold, others have felt only exhaustion, while some have described feeling “horrible” for days and days. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have learned how quickly COVID-19 can turn from what seems like a typical sickness to a serious even deadly situation. Symptoms of COVID-19 can appear two to 14 days after infection and can start out mild, but then worsen at about a week. While many symptoms of COVID-19 mirror those of a cold or the flu, there are differences. For example, researcher say the cough, if present, for a COVID-19 patients seems to be dry, not phlegmy. For Minnesotans older than 50 years old, weakness and exhaustion are quite evident. The older population may also experience mental symptoms like confusion, dizziness and brain fog. Researchers from Journal of Infection, also point out that nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are about twice as common in COVID-19 patients as in those with the flu.
Risk factors for all winter illnesses
Keep in mind, your age and existing health conditions play a role in how well your body is able to battle these viruses. Definitely pay close attention to your symptoms if you are over 65 years of age and have any of the following medical conditions:
- Chronic lung diseases such as asthma, COPD, bronchiectasis, or cystic fibrosis
- Heart disease and stroke
- Chronic kidney disease
- Diabetes or other chronic metabolic disorders
- People who are obese with a body mass index of 40 or higher
- Severe anemia (including sickle cell anemia)
- Weakened immune system due to diseases (HIV, AIDS) or medications (chronic corticosteroids, chemotherapy) that suppress the immune system
- Liver disorders
Now that we’ve covered some of the top causes of sickness in Minnesota during the cold winter months, let’s turn to care. For patients at high risk of severe disease, there are also antiviral treatments available that may prevent progression to severe illness. Talk with your doctor right away if you believe you are at high risk. Outside of patients who are at high risk, a cold, the flu and COVID-19 can be treated at home. For a majority of patients, the virus will run its course and symptoms will be manageable or at least bearable. However, there are cases when you just aren’t able to beat a virus or, you’ve entered a stage in the sickness where symptoms are serious and you need to be seen. If you experience any of the following while battling a cold, the flu or COVID-19, go to The Urgency Room or ER.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Persistent dizziness and/or confusion
- Not urinating
- Severe muscle pain
- Severe weakness or unsteadiness
- Fever or cough that improve but then return or worsen
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions
Vaccines, proper nutrition, exercise and sleep will help arm you to fight the ailments that affect many Minnesotans during the winter months. But, as important, is knowing when it’s time to call for back-up because you’re losing the battle against a virus.
Dr. Kristi Trussell of The Urgency Room. To learn more about The Urgency Room and its three Twin Cities locations, go to: https://www.urgencyroom.com.