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Doctors say testing is the best way to know if you have COVID-19 or the flu

Jennifer Dixon, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

DETROIT — Not sure if you have allergies, a cold, the flu, COVID-19 or a breakthrough infection? Doctors across Michigan agree: Get tested, even if you've been fully vaccinated against the virus responsible for the global pandemic. You could be contagious.

"There's no excuse. Go find out. It's as easy as getting a coffee," said Dr. Karen Kent VanGorder, chief medical and quality officer with the Sparrow Health System based in Lansing. "It's important to take responsibility for knowing you have COVID."

"It's much better to get tested as you may unknowingly spread it to others," said Dr. Beth Wendt, an internal medicine physician with McLaren Macomb hospital in Mount Clemens.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever and chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, and a loss of taste or smell. Symptoms can be mild to severe, and can appear two to 14 days after exposure.

Testing, said Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health, a Grand Rapids-based hospital system, "is the only way to distinguish" between flu and COVID-19.

"Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis," added Dr. Sorabh Dhar, medical director of infection prevention, hospital epidemiology, and antimicrobial stewardship at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit.


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu, and causes more serious illnesses in some people. It can also take longer before people show symptoms, and people can be contagious for longer.

Add colds and breakthrough infections, which occur in patients who have had the coronavirus vaccination and still get sick with the virus, to the difficulty of making a diagnosis.

Symptoms of breakthrough infections can include significant sinus and nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat and low-grade fever, Sullivan said. Symptoms of the common cold include runny nose, sore throat, coughing and congestion.

Dr. Diane George, a family medicine physician and chief medical officer for primary care for the Henry Ford Medical Group, said patients may be tempted to think they have a cold when they actually have a mild case of COVID-19, and decide to blow off getting tested, something she does not recommend.


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