Flu or the omicron variant? It may often be hard to tell

Published 9:00 pm Friday, January 7, 2022

By Alex Guerrero

Flu season is upon us. But with COVID-19 — and particularly the omicron variant spreading rapidly throughout the country — distinguishing between the common flu and the coronavirus can be difficult.

“The symptoms of (COVID) are fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue — which is tiredness — sore throat, runny nose, muscle pain, headache, vomiting and diarrhea sometimes, and sometimes loss of taste,” said Sue Yost, Freeborn County director of public health.

The omicron variant, which typically brings milder symptoms compared to the delta strain, is also more transmissible.

“It’s much easier to catch than say the flu,” she said.

And because omicron symptoms are so similar to those of the flu, she said the only way to tell which you have is to be tested.

“There are different tests, so you would have to be tested twice with the same type of test, a nasal test,” she said. “That’s the only way to determine which you have, and there’s really no way to tell the difference just by sitting at home and trying to decide.”

She said the reliability of take-home tests weren’t the most dependable, particularly against omicron. Instead, she recommends people showing symptoms get a PCR test, as false negatives are more common with the new strain.

“The home tests just aren’t quite as sensitive enough to be able to capture that you have omicron,” she said.    

And if you do test positive, Yost said to quarantine for at least five days in your own room.

“Use your own bathroom if possible and have people bring food if possible,” she said. “Isolate away from your family to help protect them from getting it.”

Yost said after five days with improving symptoms and you are fever-free for at least 24 hours, it is OK to leave home provided you wear a mask for an additional five days. Additional family members should wear a mask for 10 days and be tested for the virus on the fifth day.

Above all, she recommends getting vaccinated. And if you are, get boosted when eligible, as people who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and are boosted are 75% less likely to catch it.

For those who received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, she said to get either the Pfizer or Moderna booster if it’s been more than two months since receiving an initial shot.

“It just appears that the mRNA vaccines are more effective at preventing the diseases,” she said.

And if you have any symptoms, she suggested staying home and taking a test.

“Don’t just assume it’s a cold or the flu,” she said. “It may not be dangerous to you, and you may have very little symptoms, but it can be very dangerous to someone else.”

She also recommends double-masking or wearing N-95/KN-95 masks.