It’s extra important to test after New Year’s gatherings, doctor says. Here’s why
Kimberly Cataudella, The Charlotte Observer (TNS)
It’s a sniffle, a tickle in the throat and a headache. Or a fever, congestion and fatigue.
Could it be COVID, the flu or RSV?
If you’re unvaccinated, over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions, you shouldn’t wait to find out, said Dr. David Weber, associate chief medical officer at UNC Medical Center and medical director of UNC’s Department of Infection Prevention.
After Christmas and Hanukkah gatherings over the weekend, and as we’re gearing up for another party-all-night holiday weekend for New Year’s Eve, Weber wants to make one thing clear: Make sure you’re getting tested.
“We always see surges in these viruses after the holidays. We did after Thanksgiving, and we will in the days after Christmas and New Year’s,” Weber said in an interview. “We have therapies for COVID — the biggest risk right now — and for the flu. Make sure you know which virus you have so you can get the right treatment.”
These therapies only work in a short window of time, and you don’t want to wait until that window’s expired.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS
A rapid COVID-19 test kit is displayed after being given out for free to people receiving their COVID-19 vaccines or boosters at Union Station in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2022. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Could I have COVID, the flu or RSV?
The only way to know for sure: Get tested.
Symptoms overlap for all three winter illnesses (and there’s so much of all three going around, this season is known as the “tripledemic”). It’s unfortunately even possible to have all three at once.
Testing can be an at-home antigen test or PCR test for COVID, or a 4-plex test — which tests for all three diseases at the same time — at your doctor’s office.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not home, I’m just visiting and my doctor’s not here, I’ll do it when I get home,’” Weber said. “But if you wait a few days and wind up getting worse, you’re already past the window for therapies to work.”
Your yearly flu vaccine protects you and those around you from the influenza virus, which could be deadly. Getting vaccinated too early could mean you may have reduced immunity by the time the flu virus circulates in your community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting a flu vaccine in September or October to prepare for the flu season in the late fall and winter.
Flu vaccines are updated yearly to protect against the viruses in circulation for the upcoming flu season. Vaccines are readily available through places such as health departments, community clinics, and pharmacies. It takes about two weeks after vaccination to produce enough antibodies to the virus to fully protect you against the flu.
Rates of the flu have dropped dramatically in the last couple of years, mainly due to measures taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19: mask-wearing, social distancing, and reduced travel. However, experts warn of a potential resurgence of the flu in 2022 since many pandemic-related restrictions have dropped.
Most people over 6 months old can get a flu vaccine, including pregnant women and those with egg allergies. Flu vaccines are administered either as an intramuscular injection, usually in the upper arm, or as a nasal spray. Vaccines can protect against three strains of the flu virus (trivalent vaccines) or four strains of the virus (quadrivalent vaccines).
The most common side effects of the injectable flu vaccine are soreness at the injection site, muscle aches, and a fever. The side effects of the nasal spray vaccine are the same but may also include a runny nose.
People over 65 should get one of two vaccines: A high-dose quadrivalent vaccine, which contains four times the flu antigen of the standard vaccine (the flu antigen prompts the body's immune response), or an adjuvanted vaccine, which encourages a more robust immune response. In the U.S., both vaccines are approved solely for those over 65.
According to the CDC, the flu vaccine is safe to administer at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot. While this may increase the likelihood of experiencing side effects like fatigue or muscle aches, some might opt to get both vaccines simultaneously for convenience.
For the best results, Weber said, flu therapy should be taken within two days of onset symptoms, and therapy for COVID-19 should be started within five days. These treatments drastically decrease the need for hospitalization and the likelihood of death from the viruses.
Tamiflu (which treats influenza) and Paxlovid (which treats COVID) are pills that require a prescription from a doctor or pharmacist. Both are taken orally at home for five days. RSV doesn’t have an FDA-approved therapy yet.
“By the time you reach the age of 50, there’s a 50/50 chance you have an underlying disease that puts you at greater risk of hospitalization and death from these viruses,” Weber said. “Not to scare people, but to show how important it is to take the time to get tested and get treatment.”