Facing Down Omicron: How Do You Know If You Have COVID or Just a Cold?

There are signs that COVID-19 is surging again in a number of areas, fueled by the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

Across the nation, however, most COVID restrictions have been lifted, more adults are returning to work, and kids are largely no longer required to wear masks in school.

So when people become sick or watch those around them fall ill, they need to know what they really have. Whether they don't feel well but have COVID-like symptoms — or even if they don't feel "so bad," it's important to know what to do.

Here are some basics we all need to know.

1. Why does COVID keep returning?

Whenever public health measures are relaxed, you can expect to see a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Doctors advise people to remain wearing masks to contain the pandemic.

2. Do I have COVID or just a cold?

There is no simple answer to the question, and here's why. Doctors believe there's no way to tell if you have COVID-19 unless you get tested because there's no specific symptom — or lack thereof — that 100% confirms it.

Currently, the list of possible COVID-19 symptoms is long (14). Plus, symptoms vary from one person to another, and they can also depend on your age.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Sore throat.
  • Runny nose.
  • Sneezing.
  • New or worsening cough.
  • Fatigue.
  • Breathing difficulty or shortness.
  • 100-degrees F temperature (or higher)

There are a lot of people who have COVID who don't have any symptoms at all, especially if they're young and healthy. However, there are also a lot of people with COVID in their 40s, 50s, and up who are experiencing a lot of symptoms.

And a once nearly foolproof sign has nearly vanished — loss of taste and smell — has nearly vanished. Over time, doctors say that new COVID patients are experiencing that less and less. With Omicron, patients seem to be suffering more gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

So, testing is the only way to tell for sure if you have COVID-19.

3. Should you have a COVID-19 test if you have mild symptoms like a cold?

Yes. The goal of rapid tests now, though, is to tell you that a positive result likely indicates you have Omicron, or COVID -- not just that you're infected.

This is important even if you're young and otherwise healthy. If you develop long COVID, for example, it will be crucial to have that timeline and paper trail documented. It will also be essential in alerting anyone that you've been in contact with.

4. How good are rapid tests on Omicron?

It's still unclear why the quick tests don't seem to pick up Omicron as well as earlier variants. Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease doctor and Dalhousie University researcher, says it's too early to tell if Omicron is just harder to detect or if its viral load is lower because some people who are getting sick now have taken vaccines or gotten infected before.

To help get better results from your rapid tests, follow these steps:

First, test more often — every 24 hours if you can, especially if you are symptomatic. If you aren't or if that's not possible, then test every 1-3 days.

Second, swab your nose and throat to boost the test's accuracy — doctors say to swab your throat first, around your tonsils and then around the uvula hanging in the middle. When you get to your nose, swab both nostrils. You can also swab the inside of your cheek in between your throat and nasal swabs.

Also remember that some speedy tests outperform others, but a negative test does not guarantee that you do not have COVID. According to doctors, no rapid test results are foolproof, so "any cold-like symptoms could mean that you have it."

5. Does the color of nasal discharge suggest COVID?

No. While colored mucus — green or yellow, and occasionally with a foul odor — indicates a sinus infection, doctors stress that mucus color (or lack thereof) does not confirm whether or not you have COVID. You must test to know for sure.

6. I haven't heard anything about the flu lately — is it still a threat?

This year's influenza rates are low, yet it still exists. Hospitals are certainly seeing flu cases come in, and everyone with COVID-19 symptoms who tests negative will still be checked for influenza.

"We still test for it, but it's not coming up very often," added Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency physician. "Since the epidemic began, some flu strains have gone extinct."

Children with COVID-like symptoms will be examined for flu and other respiratory diseases, including RSV.

7. Why do people get colds or flu when they are cautious and careful?

Pirzada noted that colds and flu transmit more readily via surface contact than COVID-19, which is airborne. On top of that, kids are notorious for spreading germs and illnesses. People with children often carry those germs to work and pass them to other adults.

So, along with wearing a mask, the best approach to avoid colds and flu is to wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

8. What is the largest COVID-19 misconception right now?

In a word, denial. Some people still believe that they should just live with COVID by forgetting about it and carrying on as they did before — with no mask, no testing, no isolation. That's the hazardous myth."

Also, getting COVID once doesn't imply you can't get it again, Pirzada said.

Even if you become sick today, COVID immunity is limited, so you could get sick in two or three months. To protect yourself, you should follow what Barrett calls a "vaccine-plus plan."

"So obtain all your [vaccine] doses. A mask indoors isn't perfect, but it helps. Then test, isolate, and keep your contact number reasonable. You can go out, but keep it modest," Barrett recommended.

If you attend to a restaurant or other indoor event without a mask, she advises avoiding vulnerable people for three days to avoid symptoms. If you must interact with a high-risk person, wear a mask and wash your hands.