Is it a cold, flu or Covid-19? A doctor helps sort it out

As more people start getting the sniffles, you may wonder if it's a cold, the flu or Covid-19? Dr. Leana Wen helps us sort out those cold-like symptoms and decide what to do next.

Is it a cold, flu or Covid-19? A doctor helps sort it out


Sniffles, coughs, and other cold-like symptoms are common as autumn approaches and school resumes.

What should people be doing if they experience these symptoms? When should people be tested for Covid-19 and flu, or other viruses? When should they seek medical attention and what can they do to get better? What precautions can they take in school, at work, and at home?

Leana WEN, our CNN Wellness medical expert, helped me answer these questions. Wen is a professor of health management and policy at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also an emergency physician. She was previously Baltimore's Health Commissioner.

CNN: What can people do when they experience cold-like symptoms

Dr. Leana wen: Respiratory illnesses are common, particularly in winter. Over 200 viruses can cause a common cold. Children are estimated to have six episodes of respiratory illness each year while adults experience two to four. Cold-like symptoms usually go away on their own.

The best thing to do when these symptoms occur depends on the medical condition of the person and how vulnerable those living in their home are. Some people are more susceptible to the severe effects of viral diseases like influenza and Covid-19. If they test positive, these individuals should receive antiviral therapy to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death.

I would encourage anyone who develops cold-like symptoms to do a Covid-19 home test if you are over 50, 65, immunocompromised, or have serious heart or lung illnesses. If the test is positive, the patient can take Paxlovid, if they are eligible. Otherwise, the health care provider may recommend molnupiravir or remdesivir injections.

They should also test for influenza if they experience fevers or body aches. Tamiflu, an antiviral drug that targets the influenza virus, should be taken if they have the flu.

Covid-19 should be tested early and often by people living in the household of someone at risk. If you test positive for the coronavirus, you should take steps to isolate yourself from those who are at high risk.

CNN: What other viruses are there? When should people be tested for respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV), such as?

Wen: Some doctor's offices routinely test for RSV in a virus panel. A positive RSV test is not a cause for concern, as there is no specific antiviral treatment.

For this reason, most people who have cold-like symptoms don't need a full viral panel. In some cases, doctors may recommend full viral testing. For example, if a patient with an immune system disorder is seriously ill. Most people won't need to know what virus is causing symptoms because it will not change the treatment they receive.

CNN: What precautions can people take to prevent cold-like symptoms at work, school and home?

Wen: Let us examine each situation separately. Most schools have policies regarding such illnesses. Many schools do not allow children to return to class if they are suffering from severe viral symptoms, such as nausea or fever. Some schools require a note from a physician and may also have requirements for testing.

These protocols may be in place at work. If you are unsure, it is best to stay at home if you have a high fever or active symptoms. Wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask in public places, such as conference rooms, and on public transport, if you have to return to work.

The level of vulnerability for those who live with you will determine the precautions that need to be taken. It's reasonable to continue doing what you were doing before Covid-19 if everyone is healthy. Parents may decide that it is not worth the effort to keep sick children away from asymptomatic ones or asymptomatic children away from asymptomatic ones. If someone in the family is extremely vulnerable, such as an elderly grandparent suffering from severe lung disease, then that person shouldn't be in the same space with the sick person.

CNN: What are some ways people can feel better?

If you have Covid-19, influenza or are eligible for antivirals then it is important to take them early on in your illness. If you're not eligible for antivirals, then it is symptomatic.

This means getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Tylenol and ibuprofen can be taken by someone who has a fever, or is experiencing muscle pain. Some over-the counter medications may also provide relief from specific symptoms such as nasal congested and coughing.

CNN: When is it appropriate to seek medical attention?

Wen: The majority of people won't need to visit their doctor for viral colds. The elderly, the very young and those with conditions that are high-risk should be most concerned. They and their caregivers need to be prepared to seek medical attention if there is a concern or something doesn't seem right. For example, an elderly person may appear confused, a child might be fussier or more drowsy, or an underlying illness could be worsening.

Other reasons to seek medical attention include inability to drink fluids, and for small children, a decrease in the number of wet diapers, shortness and difficulty in breathing, and persistent fever lasting more than a couple days. A doctor should be consulted if symptoms like a sore throat or headache become worse.

Those who are at risk of severe illness from Covid-19, as well as their family members, should be tested for coronavirus. It is important to plan ahead for those who are at risk of severe illness due to Covid-19.

CNN: Can you tell us how to protect ourselves from these viruses?

Wen: It is important to note that viral infections can be difficult to prevent and are very common. There are some steps that people can take to lower their risk of getting infected.

Handwashing is one of the most important steps. High-touch surfaces can transmit viruses. Before eating or touching your face, people should wash their hand or use a hand sanitizer.

Individuals can take extra precautions if they are concerned about catching a virus. They may avoid crowded indoor spaces or wear a mask of high quality around others. Naturally, I urge everyone to keep up with their vaccinations. This includes the Covid-19 vaccine as well as the flu shot, and if they are eligible, new RSV vaccines.