Covid or the common cold? How can we tell the difference?


08. 01. 2024

During this season, many people are sniffling from colds and respiratory diseases. Covid is another prime suspect with very similar symptoms. MUDr. Dalibor Stoszek, general practitioner and head of the AFI clinic advises on how to distinguish between these diseases, what to look out for and how patients dealing with a normal course of the disease should address their symptoms. 

At the moment, so many people are dealing with covid. Is it possible to distinguish covid from the common cold? What should we watch out for? 

We are seeing a steep increase in respiratory infections in doctors' offices these days, including covid. Fortunately, the course of the infection is mostly mild, in the vast majority of cases not requiring referral to the hospital. However, it is not possible to distinguish covid from other viral infections simply going by the symptoms; the manifestations are generally similar. And in the next few weeks, influenza will be added to the bundle of the current package of infectious diseases. The latter (especially in the unvaccinated) typically presents with high fever, severe headache and body aches, swollen nasal mucous membranes and a cough.

If we buy a covid-test and it comes out positive, what steps should we take? 

In this case, it is ideal to contact your GP who will assess your symptoms. If you are among an at-risk group (for example, you are an asthmatic on inhalation therapy, diabetic, cardiac, etc.), it may be appropriate to consider administering antiviral treatment. The doctor will address the issue of sick leave or an in-office check-up if necessary. 

For how long are you infectious?  When is it acceptable to return to work? 

Isolation is no longer necessary, but in any case, it is important to remember that covid is an extremely infectious disease for at least 5 days from the onset of symptoms. It is therefore ideal to stay at home during this time, and if you have to go to work or out in public, then it is essential to wear a respirator. If possible, limit contact with the vulnerable, elderly and chronically ill people.

Is it necessary to go to the doctor if we suspect we have covid? 

A physical visit is not necessary, especially for a young, otherwise healthy individual who does not need a sick note or other contact with a doctor. If you are unsure, I would address the situation with a phone call to your practitioner. 

Is it possible to use your Doctor Online service to consult with a practitioner? What are the benefits to the patient? 

It is certainly possible and the Doctor Online service is also commonly used for this purpose. All of our doctors have extensive experience and know how to proceed. The most important advantage of the service is the possibility to contact your doctor at pretty much any time and from anywhere without having to leave home and go amongst other people. Of course, more serious or complicated cases may require a physical visit to the doctor, but with the Doctor Online service, you can at least be sure whether a visit to the doctor's office is really necessary. For most patients, a simple contact with a doctor in Doctor Online is sufficient.

What is your advice for patients with a normal course of covid? 

I try to reassure my patients that a severe course is highly unlikely, but on the other hand, I always stress that covid is not just a common cold. Even if the patient has mild symptoms, it is essential to rest a lot and limit physical activity even in the next few weeks with a gradual increase in intensity. In the acute phase, getting plenty of fluids and a fresh diet rich in vitamins is essential. Higher doses of vitamin C and zinc for a few days will do you no harm, but there is no evidence that they will help. This brings me back to the beginning- the best thing you can do for an uncomplicated course of the infection is to allow yourself as much time to recover from the illness on its own. 

When should medical help be sought, what are symptoms we should watch out for with covid? 

At a minimum, at-risk patients should call their practitioner. The most common warning symptom is shortness of breath both during exertion, but it is especially worrying when while at rest. Any disturbance of consciousness, either in terms of quantity, i.e. impairment of contact, or quality, typically mental restlessness or hallucinations, is serious. These symptoms can occur relatively frequently, especially in the elderly. In these cases, you should call your practitioner immediately, if they cannot be reached, then call 155. 

The ideal prevention is vaccination. Is it possible to get vaccinated even though many are now infected? 

Yes, as covid is and will be with us all year round, vaccination is still required. The vaccine will be continually updated over time, much like we know with the flu.

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