It started with the sniffles.
Creepy, I had not had a runny nose since before the pandemic. I half hoped it was related to the smoke that had driven to the San Francisco Bay Area from Caldor and Dixie fires near Lake Tahoe.
It got worse. The next morning I woke up stuffy, almost completely unable to breathe through my nose. And sore throat followed. That was when the panic set in.
This went beyond smoking symptoms or seasonal allergies. As the day went on, my sore throat got worse. I had sneezing, headaches, mild cough and just a general feeling of being sick. Even though I had been vaccinated, I feared that I had somehow gotten a breakthrough case.
I started obsessively google breakthrough symptoms on Covid. Alarmingly, according to the Zoe Covid study, headaches, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and loss of smell are the five biggest symptoms that fully vaccinated people report when they are infected. I was four for five. My husband also started to feel stuffy, so he joined me in making an appointment to get a COVID-19 test the next day.
Almost 24 hours later, our results were: we were negative. It was obviously just a cold.
I was grateful in more ways than one. Because I work from home, I easily avoided exposing anyone to the virus (besides unfortunately my immediate family). But the experience spurred a thought: In the midst of the pandemic, the symptoms of a normal cold can be somewhat more ominous.
In part, this is because the recommendations for quarantine due to even a mild case of COVID-19 — as most breakthrough cases are — are much more severe than with a normal cold. Those with symptoms such as mine (which could just as easily have been COVID-19) are presumed to isolate themselves until they have received their test results. If a fully vaccinated person tests positive, they should self-isolate for at least 10 days. In other words, it is completely different to catch a cold after the pandemic than to catch a cold in 2019.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that with the delta variant (which is the dominant strain in the United States), fully vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others – although in particular it seems to spread the virus for a shorter time.
My experience is not unique: millions of vaccinated Americans have or will experience similar symptoms and fear the worst. I was lucky to be able to easily find and schedule a COVID-19 test, even though not everyone is so lucky. How should the fully vaccinated in this situation know if their cold symptoms signify COVID-19, allergy or just a common old cold? And what challenges will we face this winter when the cold season really begins?
In an interview, Dr. Amesh Adalja that when it comes to deciphering seasonal allergies, colds and a COVID-19 infection despite vaccination, it is easiest to rule out seasonal allergies.
“People with allergies usually have a history of seasonal allergies, so it’s usually not something that comes out of the blue,” Adalja said. “It’s something that has triggers, based on certain pollen or certain times of the year, or certain exposures like cats or dogs or whatever it is, so allergies usually have a history that helps distinguish them from something that not an analogy, it’s an infection. “
Adalja knew that allergies would not normally include fever, which is usually a good indicator that a person’s body is fighting an infection. Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist at the Allergy & Asthma Network, agreed.
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“In general, allergies have several itchy symptoms – they are bilateral or bilateral rather than unilateral, and there is a seasonal component,” Parikh said in an email. “Generally with colds or flu, there is fatigue, muscle aches and fever (above 100.4 °) and loss of taste and smell. Covid and flu can also have stomach problems such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.”
Doctors have reported seeing sneezing as a symptom in breakthrough cases, something that has been reported in the Zoe Covid study. Sneezing is a new symptom compared to the hallmarks – cough, fever, fatigue, muscle aches – from the beginning of the pandemic. Although there has been speculation that it is unique to the delta variant, it has not yet been scientifically confirmed. Still, researchers at the Zoe Covid study say: “If you have been vaccinated and start sneezing a lot without an explanation, you should get a COVID-19 test, especially if you live or work around people who are at greater risk of disease. “
Of course, people with breakthrough cases often experience very mild symptoms. The COVID-19 vaccines remain effective in protecting humans from becoming seriously ill or hospitalized due to COVID-19. Still, infections can happen despite vaccinations. As doctors go on to say, no vaccine is 100% effective.
Adalja said the only way anyone can know for sure whether they are experiencing a cold or COVID-19 is through a test.
“I think because there is a great health significance to COVID-19 cases, even mild ones, that you can not just remove upper respiratory symptoms and assume that it is irrelevant because you may be infected with COVID -19, and you might be able to spread it to someone, “Adalja said. “I think those kinds of symptoms should trigger testing or think, ‘Do I have allergies?’ – all such questions. “
Adalja added that home testing is a good option for people in this situation. The BinaxNOW COVID-19 test is available at Walgreens and gives results in 15 minutes, but it costs $ 23 for a set of two tests. If these tests are not available near where you live, or if you cannot afford one, you will probably need to find a free test site nearby. This can be challenging for many during the winter, when colds and flus typically rise.
“There are so many people who either have not paid time off or are unable to take time off during the day that they are required to be at work,” said Shelby O’Connor, a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
“It’s really hard for them and I’m not judging anyone – I just think it’s hard to make that kind of decision.”
Dave O’Connor, who is also a professor of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, believes the government should do rapid tests at home for free. O’Connor said this move could be “critically important” and be the barrier between families sending their child to school with a cough or runny nose or not.
“Several of those kinds of tests can really be helpful in deciding whether you want to send your child to school or not,” Dave said. “But if it’s 25 bucks to buy a set for two of these tests, it’s 25 bucks too much for many families.”