COVID-19 didn’t wind up disappearing over the summer like we’d hoped—far from it. But even though the coronavirus doesn’t seem to be seasonal, plenty of other communicable diseases are. Colds and influenza make the rounds every winter, and this winter they’re going to be circulating alongside COVID. So how can we prepare?
Recognize that colds, flu, and COVID may look similar
Colds and the flu are already very similar ailments. Often the flu will feel more severe than a cold, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. In a typical winter, at least one strain of flu virus is going around, plus many cold viruses. Viruses that cause colds include rhinovirus, adenovirus and four other types of human coronavirus.
Any of these can cause fevers and respiratory symptoms like coughing and sniffling. Telling the difference between colds and the flu is tough enough in typical years; now we add the possibility of COVID-19 into the mix.
Don’t expect any chart or rule of thumb to be able to authoritatively tell the difference between a cold and COVID. If you think you have a garden-variety cold, it’s definitely possible it’s actually COVID. On the flip side, if you think you might have symptoms of COVID, it may bring you peace of mind to remember that it could just be a cold.
In any case, don’t assume. Testing will be important to tell the difference between COVID and other respiratory infections. (Let’s hope that prompt tests are available to everyone who needs them, and that leaders are planning now for the increased demand.) If you think you have a cold, flu or COVID (or fall allergies, for that matter), get in touch with a local doctor for advice.
Masks and distancing protect us from colds and flu, too
We’ve come to think of masks and social distancing as specifically anti-COVID measures, but since they protect us from each other’s respiratory droplets, they may reduce our risk of catching and spreading other diseases as well.
This means that even if you don’t think you’re at risk of COVID—let’s say you’re visiting a friend who recently tested negative—safety measures like masks, distancing and ventilation are still a good idea.
Remember, even though colds are less deadly than COVID, getting a cold can mean spending time worried about your health, getting tested and seeking care.
Definitely get that flu shot
The last thing you need, in the middle of a pandemic, is to catch the flu. Even though flu shots aren’t perfect, they:
- reduce your overall chances of catching the flu
- make it more likely that if you do get the flu, it will be mild
- reduce the chances that you’ll pass the flu on to someone more vulnerable
Less flu in the community is a good thing. Besides the uncertainty of wondering if you have the flu or COVID, there are other reasons. Flu patients are sometimes sick enough to need hospital care, so less flu means less strain on the healthcare system. And less flu means less of a chance that someone might get the flu and COVID at the same time. That would be no fun.
Support your immune system, but not with supplements
There are a lot of supplements out there that claim to “boost” your immune system, but those claims are mostly garbage. As we’ve discussed before, they don’t work—and even if they did, boosting isn’t what your immune system needs.
I’m thinking of supplements like Vitamin C, which isn’t bad for you or anything, but realistically it’s not going to make the difference between staying healthy and getting sick.
That said, I understand that taking a daily packet of Emergen-C (or whatever) is a helpful little ritual for many folks. Normally I’d argue that you should get over yourself, but we’re in a pandemic. If something like this helps you to feel calm and in control, maybe it’s good for your mental health. Maybe it takes up some brain space that would otherwise become filled with worry. Just be aware of the limitations, and don’t let these little rituals give you a false sense of security.
Sleep well and eat well
The best ways to support your immune system are the simple, boring ones. Science is pretty sure that people are least likely to get sick when they’re well-rested, well-fed and not terribly stressed.
Life is hard out there, and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you do get stressed. But make a little time in your schedule, when you can, to get to bed early. Plan out meals that include both protein and vegetables. Manage your stress the best you can, whether that means delegating tasks, taking more time for self care or recognizing that maybe you’ve been ignoring these signs of anxiety for too long and it’s time to look into therapy.