Not sure if it’s cold, flu or breakthrough COVID-19? Experts say: Get tested

WRAIR building

Army Public Health Center
Story by Douglas Holl

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Bethney Ann Davidson, a risk communication specialist with the Army Public Health Center, initially thought she had a cold. She was experiencing a runny nose, headache and mild congestion that intensified over the period of two days. 

Davidson was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and took precautions when going out in public places. This included frequent hand washing, wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing at all times in crowds and inside buildings. 

As head congestion and fatigue set in on day three, she decided to get tested for COVID-19, and was shocked when the test came back positive. She had experienced a COVID-19 breakthrough infection.

“Common cold symptoms can mimic symptoms of mild cases of COVID-19,” said Dr. John Ambrose, Army Public Health Center senior advisor for Clinical Public Health & Epidemiology. “Given that COVID-19 is still circulating the U.S., it is prudent to get tested for COVID-19 to ensure protection for you and close contacts. While spreading the common cold can be seen a nuisance, spreading COVID-19 to individuals may place them at higher risk of developing severe medical outcomes.”

Ambrose says everyone should take responsible steps to protect those they come into contact with. The first step in the process is understanding why a person may be experiencing the symptoms of a common cold.  
Davidson said although the cold symptoms were initially cause for concern, the major factor in her decision to get tested was protection of her family, including her daughter and daughter’s fiancé who are both school teachers and could potentially spread the virus to their co-workers and friends.  

“I have a husband who is immune compromised with Type 1 Diabetes and exposure to the virus could be very dangerous for him,” said Davidson. “We are all vaccinated, but knowing that vaccination does not keep you from getting COVID-19, it was extremely important to take precautions (getting tested) as I could have infected any of them and in turn, they could have potentially infected so many others.”

Ambrose agrees that anyone who suspects they may have breakthrough COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or any other respiratory condition should get tested, but also immediately start taking precautions. This includes handwashing, proper mask wear, and staying six feet apart from others. He also recommends calling ahead to the testing provider to let them know about experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19 so they can take steps to limit contact with others in their facility. 
“Remember that while you may have mild COVID-19 symptoms, you can spread COVID-19 to others who may develop more severe outcomes,” said Ambrose. “Similarly, if you develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19 after a holiday party or outing, you should take the steps to inform others that you may have COVID-19 and all contacts should monitor their status for development of symptoms.” 
Davidson says she is glad she decided to get tested, because it can be easy for individuals that are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to become complacent.

“People may assume that vaccination is enough, and they may not wear a mask in public settings or around friends because they feel protected,” said Davidson. “I would highly encourage anyone who develops cold symptoms like I did, to get tested in order to be certain they are not spreading COVID-19. Vaccination will protect you from a severe case of COVID-19 but it may not keep you from spreading it in the community.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone who knows they have been exposed to COVID-19 should get tested 5-7 days following exposure. COVID-19 tests are widely available at health clinics and pharmacies. They are also covered by most health insurance plans.

With flu season also underway, the Army Public Health Center has created a chart to help people determine what symptoms of cold, flu or seasonal allergies may also be COVID symptoms. The chart can be found at Resource Library/cv19-covid-or-flu.pdf#search=symptoms. Ambrose recommends COVID-19 testing if experiencing any of the following symptoms:

•    Fever (100.4 degrees or higher) or chills
•    Cough
•    Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
•    Runny nose or congestion
•    Diarrhea and/or nausea
•    Sore throat
•    Loss of sense of taste or smell 

“I hope that people don’t ignore cold and allergy symptoms,” said Davidson. “I had no way of knowing if it was just a cold or COVID-19 by the way I was feeling. Please don’t take a chance, get the test.”

The U.S. Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing, and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.