Ah, winter ― a time where we find ourselves constantly asking if we’re sick or if it’s just a reaction to the weather and all that comes with it. And during the coronavirus pandemic, those average winter symptoms feel even more alarming.
“As we go into these winter months, symptoms may be due to different things and lines get blurrier,” said Stephanie Christenson, a pulmonologist and assistant professor in the division of pulmonary, critical care, allergy and sleep medicine at the University of San Francisco. “But we’re also seeing surges in COVID-19 all over the country, so there’s a greater chance of getting infected. Being as diligent as possible is so incredibly important.”
To clear up confusion about whether your symptoms should raise a red flag for COVID-19, we asked experts to share other potential causes of coronavirus-like symptoms. Here’s what to look out for and advice on how to stay safe this winter.
Breathing cold, dry air
Dry air and freezing temperatures can dry out your airway — which includes the nasal passage and part of the throat — and cause discomfort, producing a cough, runny nose or nasal congestion. Wintry air can also compromise the moist protective lining in your airway, added David Serota, an infectious disease physician in Miami.
“When these areas dry out, viruses and bacteria are better able to latch on and develop an infection,” Serota said.
Christenson said to monitor a cough, runny nose, sore throat or nasal congestion that may occur after breathing cold air outdoors. If it is solely due to the cold air, these symptoms should resolve after a day or two.
Indoor and outdoor allergens
As we stay indoors more to escape the cold, we face extended exposure to allergens such as dust mites, mold, pet dander and more, said Gerald Lee, an allergist and immunologist in Atlanta.
Dust mites are commonly found in beds or circulating through your home’s heating and cooling system. Humid or damp areas like trash cans, kitchens or bathrooms can harbor mold, as can a fresh Christmas tree and leaves or soil in your garden. Some places have trees that pollinate in the winter months, so those allergic to pollen can continue to experience symptoms, Lee said.
Even for people who do not have allergies, some are sensitive to wood smoke and fragrances from candles and other indoor perfumes.
“Most of the respiratory symptoms — like nasal drainage, cough, potentially sore throat, potentially sinus issues and headaches associated with sinus issues — could be seen in an allergy or COVID-19,” Lee said. If you have an itchy nose or itchy eyes, this is more likely an allergic reaction.
Lee pointed out that sometimes allergy-related sinus issues can decrease your sense of taste or smell, but it’s not stark or sudden — unlike losing taste or smell due to COVID-19. The loss of taste or smell experienced by COVID-19 patients usually feels highly unusual to them.
Ultimately, if you’re unsure whether your symptoms are from allergies or a virus, Lee encouraged seeking clarification from a doctor.
Exposure to other viruses
When people congregate indoors where ventilation is poorer in the winter, they are more likely to experience respiratory infections caused by influenza, rhinoviruses and other coronaviruses that are not COVID-19.
While there are symptoms unique to a COVID-19 infection ― like stark changes in taste and smell, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea ― symptoms of these other viral infections mimic many symptoms of COVID-19, such as a sore throat, cough, fever, fatigue and body aches.
Christenson’s advice? If you feel like you have a flu or infection coming on, don’t wait around to speculate and get tested as soon as possible. And remember that a negative test result shouldn’t be a sign to end isolation, especially if you still have symptoms.
“Because the tests are not 100% sensitive ― meaning false negatives are possible ― if someone has symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and no other explanation, it is reasonable to isolate and follow the recommendations for return-to-work based on people with diagnosed COVID-19,” Serota added.
Isolating keeps any possible viral infection from spreading further to loved ones and the community, and protects you from worsening your current state.
Flare up of chronic lung conditions
Viruses are the most common trigger of symptoms of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among other triggers like wood smoke, strong fragrances or chemical smells, Christenson explained.
If you have asthma or COPD, you are probably keenly aware of what your usual cough or other respiratory symptoms are like in winter. Anything that feels different or any increase in your usual respiratory symptoms should prompt you to isolate and inform your doctor, Christenson said.
“It could be very difficult for a patient to tell the difference between COVID-19 and an exacerbation of their asthma or COPD due to causes other than the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” she said.
Christenson advised isolating until symptoms are at least improving. “Sometimes for asthma or COPD patients, it may take weeks to months to really get all the way back to baseline. But, it would be best to try to isolate until you are clearly on the mend.”
How can you minimize the effects of these winter-related health issues
There are a few measures you can take to lessen the confusion between COVID-19 and normal winter health woes.
Christenson stressed the importance of covering your nose and mouth with a mask while outdoors. In addition to mask wearing, minimizing contact with other people and physical distancing would decrease your chances of catching the other viral infections. Serota also urged getting a flu shot and continuing to wash your hands and practice good health hygiene.
Christenson encouraged people with asthma or COPD to follow their doctor’s advice on how to manage it: taking inhalers or medications as prescribed, covering your nose and mouth when outdoors, dressing warmly and avoiding symptom triggers.
Take appropriate steps to manage any allergies as well. Place a dust mite cover over your mattress and wash bedding once a week to minimize dust mite exposure. Keep pets away from areas you spend a lot of time in, and consider installing high efficiency furnace filters with a high allergen rating.
Lee suggested over-the-counter medications like intranasal corticosteroids or second generation oral antihistamines if it’s difficult for you to avoid an allergen. Consult with an allergist to help you determine the best option.
Finally, if you’re ever in doubt about your symptoms: Stay home and call your doctor. Encourage your loved ones to do the same. It’s not worth the risk of spreading illness ― especially right now.