In terms of public health, we are living in rather extraordinary times. We owe much of that to SARS-CoV-19, a near-invisible pathogen that has turned our lives upside down in recent years. While researchers have learned much about this virus that caused COVID-19, many doubts and concerns continue to confound us.
Are the variants of COVID-19 as mild as a cold or the flu? If it has virtually the same symptoms, how does COVID-19 actually differ from these common/seasonal illnesses? What should you do when seeking urgent care services for the flu, a cold or COVID-19? How should you deal with a suspected COVID infection?
These are some of the many topics we will explore in this guide—brought to you by one of California’s best urgent care networks, UrgentMED.
Important Things to Know about the Common Cold
The common cold is a highly infectious disease caused by viruses. It primarily affects your upper respiratory tract—your nose, throat, sinuses, and larynx (voice box).
A cold is a relatively minor infection that clears itself out within a week. For most adults, this is not a life-threatening condition. Only newborn infants and seniors with weakened immune systems have trouble clearing the virus. For them it can take weeks, or even lead to worse outcomes.
The common cold is also incredibly widespread. In the US alone, colds cause more doctor visits than any other disease. Adults can suffer from 2–4 bouts of cold infections in a single year. For children, the annual average figure is closer to 6–8 infections.
What Causes the Common Cold?
Over 200 different virus strains can trigger the common cold in humans, but let’s focus on the three most common culprits:
The vast majority of colds in humans are caused by rhinoviruses. First discovered in the 1950s, scientists are now aware of at least a hundred different variants of human rhinoviruses.
While you can get a cold from a rhinovirus at any time of the year, it is more likely to happen in the spring (March–May) and fall (August–October). Colds caused by rhinoviruses account for almost 40% of all cases, but they rarely become serious.
Like rhinoviruses, human coronaviruses have an extended family of around 30 variants, but only a handful of these are responsible for the common cold. Human coronaviruses tend to be more dangerous than rhinoviruses. They cause mild to moderate infection in the upper respiratory system, and are most active in the winter and early spring (December–March).
These human coronaviruses should not be confused with SARS-CoV-2, the new virus that is responsible for COVID-19. While SARS-CoV-2 first appeared in 2019, human coronaviruses have been around far longer and were first identified in the 1960s.
Coronaviruses account for about 20% of all cold infections in humans. The viruses get the name from the peculiar crown-like structure made up of “spike proteins” around their body. (Corona in Latin means “crown” or “wreath.”)
Adenoviruses are another large family of viruses responsible for a wide range of illnesses. They can cause anything from the common cold to fever, pink eye, bronchitis, pneumonia and gastroenteritis.
Adenovirus infections can happen at any time of the year. They only cause serious illness in people with compromised or weakened immune systems, such as young children, seniors, and patients with AIDS or cancer.
Aside from these three virus types, the common cold is also caused by enteroviruses, PIV, RSV, metapneumovirus, and Group A Streptococcus. While there can be some variation depending on the season, these generally cause the same symptoms as the primary three virus families.
Common Cold Symptoms
The symptoms of the common cold are clearly defined. There are historical records of this disease dating back thousands of years! Most people suffer from multiple symptoms during a cold infection, including:
- Runny nose
- Stuffed/blocked nose and sinuses
- Sore throat
- Coughing and sneezing
- Headaches and mild body aches
If you are reasonably healthy with a functioning immune system, these symptoms will clear within 10 days. In individuals with asthma, other respiratory conditions, and weak immune systems, a common cold can evolve into a serious illness like pneumonia or bronchitis.
Treatment for Common Cold
There is no cure or vaccine to prevent the common cold. This is not only because it is a relatively mild and non-threatening disease, but also because it can be caused by dozens or even hundreds of different viruses.
Scientists believe that at least 30% of all cold cases are caused by viruses that still haven’t been discovered or identified. For this reason, creating an effective vaccine that prevents all forms of the common cold has proven to be unsuccessful so far.
Thankfully, you don’t need to do much to “cure” the cold. Follow these steps if you want the symptoms to feel more tolerable:
- Take rest and avoid strenuous physical activity
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Use over-the-counter medicines for relief from sore throat and other symptoms
You should never use antibiotics to treat colds as those medicines only work against bacteria, not viruses. You should also consult a doctor before giving any non-prescription cold medication to young children or seniors.
When is an Urgent Care Visit Recommended for a Common Cold?
You don’t have to visit a doctor or an urgent care clinic for the common cold unless there are exceptional circumstances. Visit your nearest urgent care clinic if:
- Your symptoms don’t clear after 10 days
- The symptoms get worse or unusually severe
- The patient is an infant younger than 3 months, has a fever, or looks unusually tired
- You are at high risk of flu complications developing from a cold
People in the high-risk category include pregnant women, those who suffer from chronic asthma, children under 5, seniors above 65, and heart patients. If a person in this category develops a common cold and experiences significant, ongoing discomfort, it’s a good idea to visit an urgent care clinic. This can offer immediate medical care, express urgent care, or emergency medicine.
How to Protect Yourself from Getting the Common Cold
As already noted, there are no vaccines against the common cold. You also can’t catch a cold from exposure to cold temperatures or from eating or drinking certain items. The viruses that cause the common cold and incredibly infectious. You can get a cold from an infected person in two main ways:
- Inhaling the droplets they release into the air while breathing or talking
- Physical contact with an infected person or touching any surface they have touched
These viruses travel in mucus and stool particles on the infected person’s body. When they touch any open surface like doorknobs or countertops, the viruses linger there for several hours. If you touch that surface and then touch your mouth, eyes, or nose, you get infected.
You can reduce your risk of cold infection by:
- Regularly washing your hands with soap
- Using alcohol-based hand sanitizers
- Avoiding touching your face with unwashed or unsanitized hands
- Staying away from people who already have a cold
Everything You Need to Know About Influenza (Flu)
Influenza, commonly called the “flu,” is a type of infectious disease that affects your respiratory system. Unlike the cold, which only causes mild to moderate disease, influenza can be mild, moderate, or severe, with an extensive list of complications that could warrant a visit to urgent care.
Like the cold and COVID, the flu is also caused by viruses, not bacteria. While you can get the flu at any time of the year, it is most active in the US between the colder months of December to February, with some activity reported as late as May.
In terms of severity, flu is like a more intense version of the common cold. While flu symptoms are largely identical to a cold, the severity of the disease, its impact on the body, and the chance of serious complications are significantly higher.
The CDC estimates that 10–40 million cases of suspected flu happen each year in the US. Influenza is also responsible for up to 700,000 hospitalizations and 12,000–50,000 deaths per year, mainly due to complications that arise from the infection.
What Causes the Flu?
The flu is caused by a family of viruses called influenza viruses. There are four main variants, known as A, B, C, and D, of which A and B are the main variants that affect humans. C and D mainly infect birds, pigs, cattle and other mammals.
While Influenza A can also affect some birds and mammals in addition to humans, the B variant is exclusive to humans. Since it is a natural virus for us, sudden global outbreaks don’t occur with Influenza B. A pandemic is a disease outbreak that spreads across countries and continents.
The Influenza A category of viruses that jump from pigs or birds to humans is known to cause global pandemics. Before the arrival of COVID-19, we experienced several such outbreaks, including the H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009 and the H5N1 Avian Flu in 2003.
Flu viruses usually attack the cells lining our lungs and respiratory system. This causes inflammation, resulting in a response by our body’s immune system, which leads to fever and a host of other symptoms.
Common Influenza Symptoms
There’s considerable overlap between the symptoms of cold and flu infections. When symptoms first appear, you may not be able to tell which one you’re infected with. But while cold symptoms come on gradually, the flu can develop much more quickly and have more severe symptoms, including:
- Fever, chills and sweats
- Aching muscles and joints
- Headache and eye pain
- Runny or stuffed nose
- A dry cough that does not go away
- Severe fatigue and weakness
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Vomiting and diarrhea (in children)
If you have a healthy immune system, a typical seasonal flu should clear out within a week. However, some symptoms like a sore throat or cough may last for up to two weeks. If you don’t have an active immune system, or if you suffer from asthma or other respiratory conditions, the flu can get more serious and require medical attention.
When to Visit an Urgent Care Clinic for Flu Treatment
Healthy adults are not usually at risk of flu complications, but children are at a higher risk. You should visit an urgent care clinic if you or a child suffers from:
- Trouble with breathing
- Chest pain
- Severe muscle pain
- Blue lips
- Dehydration from diarrhea
- Worsening of other conditions like asthma
Adults can also fall into the high-risk category for severe flu infections if they:
- Are older than 65
- Are staying at a hospital or nursing facility
- Have a weak immune system due to cancer treatment, medication or an HIV infection
- Have chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease or kidney disease
- Are pregnant
- Are obese with a BMI above 40
- Have Native American ancestry
If you or a loved one are in a high-risk category, you should visit a physician for treatment as soon as possible. In high-risk individuals, influenza can progress into serious and life-threatening conditions, including pneumonia, bronchitis, heart trouble and acute respiratory illness. Pneumonia is particularly concerning as it is a major cause of death in seniors.
Treatment of Flu
Unlike the common cold, doctors have several treatment options at their disposal to tackle the flu. The first step is prevention. Flu vaccines have been developed, and are recommended by the CDC for everyone above the age of 6 months. This is an annual vaccine that you should receive each year to maintain immunity against flu viruses. This mainly reduces the risk of severe symptoms and the need for hospitalization.
In addition to the vaccine, various anti-viral medications can be used in severe cases of influenza. But for the majority of people this aggressive treatment is unnecessary. At-home treatment for flu follows the same basic guidelines as the common cold: plenty of rest, fluids and over-the-counter medication.
How to Protect Yourself From Influenza
The first line of defense against the flu is the vaccine. You can get your annual flu shot at an affordable cost at all UrgentMED urgent care centers across Southern California. However, the shot does not give a 100% guarantee of preventing infection.
For this reason, you should take additional steps to reduce your chances of catching the flu. To prevent the spread of disease to yourself or others, follow these steps:
- Wash hands frequently or use hand sanitizers
- Don’t touch your face, eyes, or mouth if possible
- Use a tissue to cover your sneezes or coughs
- Avoid crowded areas during flu season
Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19
The coronavirus known as COVID-19 is a new disease that first appeared among humans in late 2019. Similar to the Swine Flu and Bird Flu outbreaks in recent years, COVID-19 is caused by a virus that was transmitted from animals to the human population.
While it is not the most contagious or deadly disease, COVID-19 is still considered extremely dangerous for several reasons:
- It is at least three times more deadly than the regular seasonal flu
- It spreads faster than seasonal flu
- It is a new disease against which we have little to no immunity
- The virus is still undergoing many mutations
- We are still learning new things about the virus
What Causes COVID-19?
Coronaviruses are a family of germs that affect humans as well as other mammals. Some human-focused coronaviruses have already been mentioned as the pathogens behind the seasonal flu. COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a variant that may have originated from bats.
What originally began as a single variant of novel coronavirus has now split into at least 5 known strains or variants. These have names like Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. Of the five, Omicron is currently considered the more concerning variant, as it is the dominant strain showing up in most new infections.
Why Do We Have New Variants of COVID-19?
Viruses are extremely simple organisms that, unlike bacteria, don’t even have cells. Instead they have a basic genetic code, either DNA or RNA, held as a packet with some proteins.
DNA has two strands of proteins, while RNA has a single strand. While DNA viruses are more stable, RNA viruses tend to be rather unstable. When a virus infects our body, it creates copies of its RNA to multiply itself.
Sometimes during this process, errors can occur in the genetic code. These are called mutations and they give rise to new variants of the virus. Since the COVID-19 virus has infected millions of humans, it is constantly mutating.
While some mutations are weak and die quickly without incident, others may acquire new traits, like faster infection rates or increased resistance against our immune systems. When a new variant becomes more infective, it soon takes over and becomes the dominant strain.
A quick look at the different SARS-CoV-2 variants will explain this movement:
- Alpha: 30%–50% more infectious than the original COVID virus
- Beta: 50% more infectious than original COVID virus
- Delta: 80%–90% more infectious than Alpha
- Omicron: 4 times more infectious than Delta
- Omicron B.A.2: 50% more infectious than Omicron
These newer variants use different pathways to attack cells in the body, making it progressively harder for immune systems and vaccines to offer protection against newer virus strains. Because of these constant changes, new symptoms of COVID-19 are being reported with each new variant.
Common COVID-19 Symptoms
The list of symptoms for COVID has been updated over time. The CDC currently lists these major symptoms:
- Fever and chills
- Difficulty in breathing
- Muscle pain and body aches
- Loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion and runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Cough, fatigue, fever and runny nose have been the most common reported symptoms for the latest Omicron variant. The loss of smell, which was reported more often in earlier variants, has become less common.
As you can see, many of these symptoms are identical to what you would find in a case of seasonal flu. However, COVID-19 is far more severe and unpredictable than the regular flu. In many healthy patients and even seniors, the infection does not display any symptoms. Despite this, they can still infect others.
Potential Complications in COVID-19
COVID-19 can cause severe and debilitating diseases in patients young and old. In many patients, it progresses into potentially lethal conditions that include the following:
- Acute respiratory failure: The lungs do not pump oxygen into the blood, causing death.
- Severe pneumonia: The inside of the lungs is filled with pus and fluid, making it harder for organ systems to receive oxygen; this leads to organ failure and death.
- Acute Respiratory Distress: Due to fluid buildup in the lungs, a ventilator is required to breathe.
- Liver Injury/Failure: While the actual reasons are not yet known, COVID-19 causes liver failure and death in many patients.
- Acute Cardiac Injury: Many patients who required hospitalization displayed a variety of heart ailments, including arrhythmias.
Additionally, blood clots, kidney failure, secondary infections and septic shock have all been reported as complications in patients suffering from severe cases of COVID-19. Many of these are extremely serious conditions that cause death or lasting damage to the body.
What is “Long COVID”?
In many COVID patients, including those with milder versions of the disease, several symptoms have persisted long after the virus cleared their systems. This condition, unique to COVID-19 when compared to flu or a common cold, is called “Long COVID” or “Post-COVID-19 Syndrome.” The most commonly reported Long COVID symptoms are:
- Mental fog
- Breathing issues
- Difficulty in thinking/concentrating
- Sleep problems
- Diarrhea and abdominal pain
- Changes in the menstrual cycle
When to Contact an Urgent Care Center About COVID-19
Since COVID is such a novel and unpredictable disease, you should always be ready to seek an expert medical opinion, whether or not you have health insurance. A COVID-related incident can develop in the following ways:
Someone Close to You Tested Positive for COVID-19
If this happens, and you think you may have been exposed to the disease, the CDC recommends that you take the following steps:
- Stay home as much as possible and avoid public areas except for medical reasons
- Stay hydrated and take over-the-counter medicines for any symptoms
- Keep in touch with your regular physician if you have one
- Avoid public transportation and maintain social distancing from others
- Keep a close eye on your health status for possible early symptoms, such as a sore throat
You Start Showing Symptoms of COVID-19
If you’re getting sick with fever, sore throat and fatigue, the most important thing to do is get tested for COVID-19. Since the symptoms of flu and COVID overlap, you need to figure out which disease you are suffering from. If you can confirm a COVID infection, this will help you stay extra vigilant in case of complications.
The CDC recommends that you get tested as soon as the symptoms appear. Testing options for a COVID infection include testing at a diagnostic lab, and using at-home testing kits. UrgentMED clinics offer multiple forms of COVID testing, including PCR, rapid antigen and rapid PCR tests.
Steps to Take With a Positive COVID Test Result
If you test positive for COVID-19, follow these additional protocols for at-home care:
- Quarantine/isolate yourself from other members of the family
- Wear a well-fitted mask around others, preferably an N95 or KN95 mask
- Be watchful for any changes in your symptoms and seek medical assistance at the first sign of trouble
- Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any doubts
Many urgent care centers and doctor offices offer virtual visits to reduce the risk of infection. You may make an appointment online and consult your physician via video or voice chat to learn more about your prognosis.
Who Should Contact a Doctor Immediately After a Positive COVID Test?
If you are a senior or someone with pre-existing risk factors, you should seek immediate medical assistance after a positive COVID-19 test. During an in-person or telemedicine visit, the doctor will determine whether you can stay at home or if you should get admitted to a specialized care facility. High-risk conditions that can negatively impact your ability to survive COVID-19 include:
- Advanced age
- Obesity and diabetes
- Asthma or chronic lung disease
- Compromised immunity
- Major health conditions such as cancer or AIDS
- Chronic liver or kidney disease
Warning Signs That You Need Emergency Care From COVID
While isolating after a positive COVID test, you should stay aware of any changes in your symptoms. The following developments could indicate a health emergency that needs urgent attention at a hospital/ER:
- Suddenly increased difficulty in breathing
- Pressure or chest pains
- Mental confusion
- Inability to wake up or stay awake
- A blue/gray tinge on skin, lips, and nails
If someone you know has tested positive for COVID-19 and is showing these distressing symptoms, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 911 or your local ER for assistance. Urgent care facilities are available to handle any non-life-threatening illness and injuries. Any COVID-related emergency could be a potentially life-threatening situation and is beyond the scope of services offered at urgent care clinics.
What Kinds of COVID-19 Tests are Offered at UrgentMED?
At the majority of UrgentMED clinics across Southern California, you will find access to all three common types of COVID testing options we mentioned above. Each of these is explained in more detail below to help you decide which one is right for you.
When fighting an infection, your immune system releases unique antibodies to kill the foreign pathogens. An antibody test is a blood test that indicates whether you’ve had a past infection of COVID-19, based on traces of these antibodies.
This test will not tell you whether you are currently infected with COVID-19. Its main benefit is to let you know whether you have built up any immunity against COVID. At UrgentMED health care facilities, we offer COVID antigen tests with rapid results in under 10 minutes.
A rapid antigen test is a relatively inexpensive COVID testing option. Using samples collected from inside your nose/throat, it looks for traces of proteins that are found on the outer surface of the Coronavirus.
While this is not the most accurate COVID testing option, antigen tests can tell you if you have an ongoing infection. Most often, this type of test is used to confirm an infection in a patient who is already showing symptoms.
Antigen tests are also used in mass COVID testing for the detection of transmission within a community. Due to its lower accuracy and false positives, this test is not used when you need a definitive confirmation of COVID presence in the body.
COVID-19 rapid antigen tests with are available at all UrgentMED urgent care centers, and can deliver results in under 30 minutes.
Rapid RT-PCR Test
Short for “Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction,” an RT-PCR test is the current gold standard among all COVID testing protocols. It is a highly sensitive test that can definitively prove if you are positive or negative for COVID-19.
RT-PCR tests can also detect COVID-19 in asymptomatic patients. Its main disadvantage is that it can take more time than other tests. But with the rapid PCR testing available at all UrgentMED urgent care centers, you can expect results in under 30 minutes.
Things to Remember When Going to an Urgent Care Center With COVID
While the best urgent care centers are walk-in clinics with zero wait time and quick access to medical needs, COVID-19 requires some changes. For instance if you want a rapid COVID test, you will have to inform the staff in advance via email or phone call.
If you already have COVID symptoms, don’t forget to wear a well-fitting mask during your visit. Whenever possible, use virtual appointments and telemedicine visits to save time and minimize direct face-to-face contact.
Key Similarities and Differences Between the Common Cold, the Flu, and COVID-19
All three of these infections are caused by viruses. Even though some colds are caused by coronaviruses—the same family as the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19)—that doesn’t mean they are the same thing.
All three viruses target some part of the human respiratory system: our nose, throat, sinuses and lungs. While there is no vaccine against a cold, both influenza and COVID-19 can be prevented (or severely reduced) through vaccinations and booster shots.
In terms of serious complications and death, the common cold is the least dangerous of the three, followed by influenza. Due to a long list of side effects and complications, COVID-19 is far more unpredictable and dangerous than the other two.
In healthy individuals, all three diseases can pass without special treatment within 7–10 days. But if you are a senior, or have pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure or cancer, the risk of death is much higher with COVID-19.
Management protocols are much more stringent for COVID-19 when compared to a cold or the flu. This requires strict quarantine, masking, social distancing and testing. A visit to the emergency room is more likely with a COVID-19 infection.
Choose the Best Urgent Care Clinic: Visit UrgentMED for All Your COVID Testing Needs
UrgentMED is an acclaimed provider of urgent medical care across Southern California, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Irvine, Newport Beach and Tustin, CA.
We offer quick access to medical care without requiring you to spend long hours in a waiting room. Our health care services come with insurance coverage, affordable fees, diagnostic facilities, digital X-rays, an on-site prescription medication facility, and more. These services are available across all of our walk-in clinics.
If you need urgent COVID-19 testing from a qualified and dedicated medical team, we offer Antigen, Antibody, and PCR tests with rapid results. Set up an online appointment today for your COVID-19 test at the best urgent care centers in California.