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Do I Have the Flu, Seasonal Allergies, or COVID-19?

Publication: Austin Medical Times

When some of the symptoms for flu, seasonal allergies, and COVID-19 overlap, it can be confusing to tell the difference. For COVID-19, you no doubt have seen the symptoms listed on posters in your physician’s waiting room, on social media, or in news coverage: fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Even as researchers and medical experts learn more every day about COVID-19, some things are clear: people with suppressed immune systems may be at greater risk for contracting the virus and experiencing complications. Most cancer patients are in this category. Some cancer therapies, such as targeted drugs, steroids, as well as some cancer types, like blood cancers, can result in a weakened immune system. Cancer patients should be especially vigilant in monitoring their health and protecting against infections.

What symptoms should I look out for?
While most people who contract COVID-19 only experience mild symptoms, everyone should be aware of precautions to take, signs to look for. It can be very hard to tell the difference between COVID-19, the flu, allergies, and the common cold.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms can be mild to severe and typically appear two to 14 days after exposure.

While fever, cough, and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms, some patients with COVID-19 have presented with muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, sore throat, runny nose, or fatigue.

The CDC recommends seeking medical attention immediately if you develop severe warning signs for COVID-19, including, but not limited to, trouble breathing, chest pain, new confusion, or inability to arouse. It is important to consult your physician for any other concerning symptoms.

What should I do next?
As a cancer patient, and an individual at higher risk for complications from viral infections, it’s vital that you contact your physician if you’re exhibiting any symptoms. If you aren’t feeling completely well, call before going to your clinic. Don’t risk exposing others. Get your physician’s guidance on next steps, which may include testing. If your symptoms become severe and you are short of breath, visit the ER but ask a family member or caregiver to call ahead so hospital staff know you’re coming.

What precautions should I take?
The virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be spread mainly between people through respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. According to certain recent studies, COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms. There are steps you can take during the COVID-19 pandemic to decrease your chance of infection as a cancer patient. Many patients must continue cancer treatments, even in uncertain times. Take every precaution to protect yourself, including:

  • Limit public outings, except for essential treatments.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds and frequently, or use hand sanitizer. 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Disinfect commonly touched surfaces.
  • Wear a mask or cloth face covering in public, as recommended by the CDC. 

Most importantly, if you’re feeling sick, stay home, call to alert your cancer care team, and consult with your physician as soon as possible to ensure you have the support you need.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Austin Medical Times.