Is it COVID or a cold? How to Know as Omicron Cases Rise


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The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says a resurgence of COVID-19 appears to be underway, fueled by the highly transmissible variant of Omicron. At the same time, most COVID restrictions have been lifted across the country, more adults are returning to workplaces, and children, for the most part, no longer have to wear masks in schools.

“As of March 31, the average daily number of cases has increased by 28% nationally,” Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said during a briefing last week.

It seems that everyone knows someone who is sick or is sick themselves. Two of the doctors who spoke to CBC News for this story recently tested positive.

But with limited access to PCR testing across Canada, some people who get sick are wondering if they have COVID or a cold or the flu — and what they should do if they have COVID-like symptoms but don’t. don’t feel so bad.

We will answer some of these questions here.

WATCH | Why Omicron cases are on the rise and how to mitigate transmission:

Tam discusses the reasons for the resurgence of COVID-19 in parts of Canada

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, said whenever public health measures are relaxed, a resurgence in COVID-19 cases can be expected. Tam says she encourages people to continue wearing masks to keep the pandemic under control. 1:45

Is it COVID or just a cold?

It’s impossible to know for sure if you have COVID-19 without a test, said Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency physician in Edmonton.

“There is no specific symptom or absence of symptoms that can say for sure whether it is COVID or not..”

the current list of possible symptoms of Covid-19 in Canada is long – 14 in all. And PHAC warns that symptoms vary from person to person and age may be a factor.

Currently, some of the most common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • sore throat
  • runny nose
  • sneeze
  • new or worsening cough
  • tired
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • temperature equal to or greater than 38°C

“Many people infected with COVID experience next to nothing or very mild symptoms – especially if they are young and healthy – compared to some people who are starting to reach their 40s, 50s and older seem to be much more symptomatic” , said Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

And a once telltale sign has all but disappeared.

“This loss of taste and smell, which was sort of a warning symptom, like, it’s most likely COVID…which evolved from the virus, where it’s less prominent now,” Barrett said. .

What doctors say they see most with Omicron are gastrointestinal symptoms, especially diarrhea, but also vomiting and abdominal pain.

Still, the bottom line is that testing is the only way to know for sure if you have COVID-19.

If you have manageable symptoms, like a mild cold, should you still get a COVID-19 test?

Doctors say yes.

“The purpose of a rapid test is not to tell you that you are not infected,” Barrett said.

“The purpose of a rapid test at this stage is to tell you, if you have a positive result, that it is very likely that you have Omicron, or COVID.”

And knowledge is important for several reasons.

“If you’re a high-risk person, getting tested would make you eligible for antiviral treatment,” said Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency physician in Toronto.

He recommends anyone who is elderly, immunocompromised or has multiple health conditions to get at least a rapid antigen test, although a PCR is preferable. Still, he said a positive rapid test “would put you in line to get these newer antiviral drugs,” including Remdesivir or Paxlovid.

Rapid tests are also recommended if you are young or healthy, for several reasons.

A rapid home test for COVID-19 shows a negative result. (David Horemans/CBC)

“In the event of a situation where someone might be unlucky enough to develop long COVID, it’s important to have that documentation that they had COVID,” Mithani said.

She said it’s also important to know so you can let anyone you were in close contact with know that they’ve been exposed to the virus.

I heard that quick tests don’t work on Omicron, so what’s the point?

It’s not entirely clear yet why the rapid tests don’t seem to pick up Omicron as effectively as they did the previous variants.

Barrett said it’s too early to know if it’s the variant itself that’s harder to detect, or if there’s less viral load to detect because people who get sick have a certain level. immunity to vaccination or previous infection.

But there are ways to make the test more efficient.

First, test more often.

“Test every 24 hours while you’re symptomatic,” Mithani said.

“For at least for every day you are symptomatic, I would test every day if you have access to that number of rapid tests. If not, you can extend it every one to two, or one to three days, just to ration a bit of testing.”

Second, go beyond your nose.

“Dab your throat and nose to improve the sensitivity or accuracy of the test,” Mithani said.

She advises dabbing your throat first, around your tonsils and the uvula in the middle.

“Dab it aggressively,” she said, “then dab both of your nostrils.”

Pirzada said you can also dab your cheek between your throat and nose.

Doctors say swabbing the throat and cheek, as well as the nose, can make rapid COVID-19 tests more effective. Here, a woman is seen having her throat swabbed at a coronavirus testing site in Beijing on Wednesday. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

That said, he specifies some rapid tests have been shown to perform better than others. And all the doctors agreed that just because you test negative doesn’t mean you don’t have COVID.

“As soon as you develop cold symptoms, that’s a sign you might have it,” Pirzada said.

“The rapid test, even if it’s negative, don’t take it as gospel, especially right now.”

Does the color of nasal secretions indicate if it is more likely COVID?

No. The colored mucus — green or yellow, and sometimes foul-smelling — often stems from a sinus infection, Pirzada said, which can be bacterial. But he said clear or colored mucus won’t tell you for sure if it’s COVID. You must test.

I don’t know anyone who has the flu — is it still there?

Flu rate remains low for this time of year, according to PHAC’s FluWatch report. In fact, he says there was “no evidence of community circulation of influenza” throughout the 2021-2022 season.

Despite a similar number of lab tests for influenza, the test positivity rate ‘exceptionally low’ across Canada, at 0.13%, compared to an average of 23% test positivity for the same period over the past six pre-pandemic seasons.

This flu season (which began on August 29, 2021) has seen only 551 reported flu detections, compared to an average of 38,193 at this point in the past six pre-pandemic flu seasons.

Doctors provide flu shots to patients in their underground parking lot in Vancouver in October 2020. Flu rates have been extremely low in Canada for the 2021-22 season. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Mithani said doctors are seeing cases of the flu in Edmonton hospitals, and if a high-risk person presents with symptoms and tests negative for COVID-19, they will be tested for the flu. It’s pretty much the same in the other provinces as well.

Pirzada said anyone at high risk in Ontario will also be tested for the flu if the COVID PCR test at the hospital is negative.

“So we’re still testing it, it just doesn’t come back positive very often,” Pirzada said.

“Some flu strains have actually disappeared since the start of the pandemic.”

Young children presenting to hospital with COVID-like symptoms will also be tested for influenza and other respiratory illnesses, including RSV.

If people are wearing masks and being careful, why do they still catch colds or the flu?

Although COVID-19 is mostly airborne, colds and flu also spread more on surfaces, so Pirzada said it’s possible people could catch them that way.

The other thing, he said, is the children.

“Children are enthusiastically spreading these viruses with each other, and they bring it home. And then you, if you have children, spread it to other people in your workplace.”

The best way to avoid colds and flu, besides continuing to wear a mask, is the age-old advice to wash your hands and not touch your face.

Children, like those seen playing together at Dream Magic Daycare in Val-d’Or, Quebec, are a primary source of the spread of colds and other viruses. (CBC/Radio Canada)

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about COVID-19 right now?

“The most dangerous thing is that living with COVID means pretending it’s not there,” Barrett said.

“That if you are someone who wants to live with COVID, you have to forget it and just do what you did before COVID – the same amount of interaction, the same type of interaction without a mask, no test, no isolation. That’s a dangerous misconception.”

Pirzada said it’s also important to remember that if you get COVID, it doesn’t mean you won’t get it again.

“Even if you get sick now… immunity to COVID is very short, so you could get sick in the next wave in two or three months.”

He said there was a need to move to policies that reduce the amount of virus circulating, “like good ventilation, masking in indoor spaces when there are big waves like this, and rapid testing.”

WATCH | Why this doctor says masks are still important:

Mask mandates should be extended in Quebec, doctor says

Dr. Christopher Labos spoke to CBC News about the sixth wave of the pandemic in Quebec and how he thinks it’s best that mask mandates continue for the time being, to reduce the risk of hospitalizations. 6:01

“The biggest thing is what I call the vaccine-plus plan,” Barrett said.

“What’s to get all [vaccine] doses for which you are eligible. Wear a mask indoors – it’s not perfect, but it certainly helps. And then, where appropriate, test and isolate and keep your contact number moderate. You don’t have to stay home, but keep it moderate.”

She said if you go out to a restaurant or other indoor gathering without wearing a mask, try to avoid seeing vulnerable people for three days afterwards to make sure you don’t develop symptoms. And if you must interact with someone at high risk, walk away, wear a mask, and practice good hand hygiene.