Do you have Covid, the flu or just a pesky cold? Ultimate guide on how to tell three illnesses apart as cocktail of seasonal bugs (and a new variant!) sweeps UK

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Brits should brace for another resurgence of Covid, flu and other seasonal bugs, experts have warned amid a surge in cases. 

Health chiefs fear the outbreaks will continue to pick up pace in the coming weeks as a result of people mixing indoors with loved ones over the festive period.

January’s freezing temperatures encouraging people to meet up inside, along with the return to offices and classrooms and a troublesome new Covid variant, are only expected to add to skyrocketing infection rates.

Officials urged those with coughs, sore throats or a runny nose to limit contact with vulnerable groups — such as the elderly, pregnant women and those with underlying conditions — over fears they could become seriously unwell with a virus. 

So what are the tell-tale signs now of a Covid infection? And how can you tell it apart from flu? 

Graphic shows the common symptoms (green tick), occasional and possible symptoms (orange circle) and the symptoms that never occur (red cross) with the common cold, flu and Covid

Covid

At the start of the Covid pandemic, a loss of taste or smell, a continuous cough and a fever, were the three tell-tale signs of the virus.

But as new variants evolved and both vaccines and repeated waves of infection blunted the threat of the virus, the official symptom list grew.

Latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), shows that headaches, a runny nose and coughing are among the most common Covid symptoms reported.

Muscle aches, a sore throat and tiredness were three other frequently logged symptoms, along with shortness of breath and the sudden loss of taste and smell.

Professor Philippe Wilson, an expert in biomedical technology at Nottingham Trent University told MailOnline: ‘Beyond these primary symptoms, severe cases of Covid can lead to complications such as chest pain, confusion, and bluish discoloration of the lips or face, indicating a need for immediate medical attention.’

What do we know about Juno?

Juno was first spotted by the UKHSA as part of routine horizon scanning – the process of monitoring emerging infections with the potential to affect the UK.

The variant, scientifically known as JN.1, was flagged because it contained a L455S mutation in the spike protein.

This tweak is known to help the virus dodge immune protection built up from previous infection and vaccination.

It was also taking off internationally as well as in the UK, the UKHSA noted.

This led the agency to designate the strain an official variant, labelling it V-23DEC-01 – a process that means it is formally being tracked.

As of December 30, Juno was behind 64.5 per cent of the UK’s Covid cases. 

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ONS figures from mid-December suggest one in 16 people in London were infected with the virus, making it England’s worst-hit region in the run up to Christmas.

Separate data released this week suggests that the Juno variant, a spin-off of the Omicron strain and scientifically known as JN.1, makes up two-thirds of new cases.

It first started spreading in the UK in October and was spotted by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) as part of routine horizon scanning — the process of monitoring emerging infections.

The variant was flagged because it contained a rogue mutation in the spike protein known to help the virus dodge the body’s internal defences. 

Health experts say this makes it easier for the virus to infect the nose and throat compared to other circulating variants, which the immune system finds easier to fight off due to vaccination and previous infection.  

But there is no evidence to suggest that it is more dangerous than previous strains.

There are concerns it will fuel the number struck by long Covid — symptoms of infection that last longer than a month, such as brain fog, tiredness and headaches.

Covid infection rates, however, are nowhere near levels seen earlier in the pandemic.

Infections climbed as high as 4.3million two years ago during the spread of the original Omicron — but this was topped a few months later, when the number reached a record 4.9million. 

The threat of Covid for many people has been drastically reduced by the wall of immunity built up by vaccines and infections. 

Flu  

Triggered by influenza viruses, the illness usually causes people to have a cough, the most common crossover seasonal virus symptom.

But signs of the flu are typically much more intense and can even cause stomach issues. It can prove fatal in some cases if complications, such as pneumonia, arise among the most vulnerable. 

 

Professor Ron Eccles, who ran the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University before retiring from the university in 2017, told MailOnline: ‘Flu symptoms typically have body symptoms such as chilliness, fever, headache and muscle aches and pains.

‘The flu feels worse because the symptoms affect the whole body and are not restricted to a head cold.’

He added: ‘Gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea are more prevalent in influenza cases.’

Latest UKHSA data shows flu admissions are surging.

Hospitalisations hit 6.8 per 100,000 people in England in the week to December 31, up by a third in a week and 10-times higher than one month earlier.

But levels are lower than the same week last year (12.7), which was the worst flu season for a decade as it marked the first winter without Covid restrictions since the pandemic began — allowing influenza to rapidly spread against a background of low immunity. 

In a bid to 'go back to normal', invites won't be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic

Those who are eligible can book their jabs through the NHS website, the NHS App or by calling 119

Since September, health officials have urged the 30million people in England eligible to come forward for their Covid and flu jabs, to reduce their risk of becoming severely unwell and needing hospital care. Among those invited for top-up doses are the over-65s, care home residents, frontline health and social care workers and pregnant women

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics and UK Health Security Agency in December showed symptoms including headaches, a runny nose and coughing were among three of the most common Covid symptoms reported in the week ending December 13. Other frequently logged symptoms also included muscle ache, a sore throat and tiredness

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics and UK Health Security Agency in December showed symptoms including headaches, a runny nose and coughing were among three of the most common Covid symptoms reported in the week ending December 13. Other frequently logged symptoms also included muscle ache, a sore throat and tiredness

Experts warned, however, that Brits who have been ill in recent weeks could have succumbed to ‘two or three viral infections’ at the same time ‘like a domino effect’. 

Dr Chris Smith, a virologist at the University of Cambridge told BBC Look East: ‘Many of these different diseases all present in exactly the same way. 

‘They tend to cause a runny nose, a sore throat, a fever some of the time — especially with flu — sometimes you get a cough as well. 

‘So it can be very hard to know exactly what it is because many of these things all present the same way but they’re caused by many different infections.

‘The other bit of bad news is that you can catch lots of them at the same time. We occasionally see people who are diagnosed with two, sometimes three, viral infections simultaneously.’ 

He added: ‘So when we say to other people, “I had the most awful cold over Christmas”, or “over New Year”, you may well have actually succumbed to several things either all at the same time or one after another like a domino effect.’

Since September, health officials have urged the 30million people in England eligible to come forward for their Covid and flu jabs, to reduce their risk of becoming severely unwell and needing hospital care. 

They urged Brits to turn to pharmacies and local urgent treatment centres where appropriate, as a spike in virus patients is causing A&E delays to further spiral. 

Among those invited for top-up doses are the over-65s, care home residents, frontline health and social care workers and pregnant women.

Cold 

Rhinoviruses are the most common cause of a cold, but a minor infection of the nose and throat can be caused by one of more than 200 different viruses. 

If symptoms are mostly restricted to the upper airways, it is likely to be a cold.  

‘Cold symptoms are more of a head cold with runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and blocked nose’, Professor Eccles said. 

Cold weather alone does not cause a cold. But the body is more susceptible to infection when the immune system is weaker.

London-based GP Dr Ann Nainan told MailOnline: ‘Colds usually develop gradually and can cause cough, congestion and fatigue. They creep up on you with stuff like a runny nose or a sore throat.’

The illness tends to be ‘a nuisance’, as opposed to the flu, which ‘can knock you off your feet and keep you in bed’, she added.

This overlap in symptoms, however, can make clinical diagnoses challenging. 

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