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

Publication: Houston 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’s the difference?
While most people who contract COVID-19 only experience mild symptoms, everyone should be aware of precautions to take, signs to look for, and how to tell COVID-19 symptoms from allergies or the flu.

Allergies: Sneezing, congestion, runny nose, and itchy eyes are common with seasonal allergies. With the exception of rash, allergies are localized to the head, generally the nose and eyes, and do not include fever. A key symptom with allergies is sneezing, which is not a symptom of COVID-19.

Influenza (flu): Fatigue, fever and chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, and headaches are all symptoms of the flu. In some cases, the flu can also cause vomiting and diarrhea. Typically, flu symptoms last about one week.

COVID-19: Fever and cough are two of the three key symptoms of COVID-19, but there is a key difference in the cough. The flu can lead to congestion and clearing of mucus in the throat, whereas COVID-19 causes a very dry cough that does not produce mucus but rather comes from deep within the chest.

Here’s another important difference: COVID-19 is distinguishable from the flu and other conditions in that it often causes shortness of breath. Warning signs may be difficulty breathing, severe chest pain, or pneumonia. Some patients have experienced other symptoms, such as nausea and sore throat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms can be mild to severe and typically appear two to 14 days after exposure.

What should I do next?
As a cancer patient, and an individual at higher risk, 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?
Prevention is the most important aspect of living with cancer amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 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.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Disinfect commonly touched surfaces.

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. And if you have any new concerning symptoms, please contact your doctor immediately.

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

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