COVID variant XBB is rising — what are its symptoms compared to the flu, cold & RSV?

A new and transmissible Omicron subvariant is emerging in Canada.

sick woman blowing her nose on a couch with a cold xbb
Is it the cold, flu, RSV or COVID? And what's the new COVID variant XBB? Read on to learn how to differentiate among the viruses. (Photo via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

It's been more than a year since the Omicron variant came into existence, sending COVID case counts through the roof and dramatically altering both the trajectory of the pandemic (and many Canadians' holiday plans).

Since then, the deadly variant has bred a series of highly transmissible strands, fuelling waves of infections across the country.

The most recent and contagious Omicron subvariant is XBB, which has drawn the concern of the World Health Organization and is making up at least 40 per cent of COVID cases in the United States — while also making its way into Canada. Meanwhile, data from the U.K. suggests that it represents one in 25 COVID cases, and it will likely become the next dominant strain.

Because XBB is fairly new, scientists are still trying to understand the strain and how it behaves differently from other variants. While XBB's symptoms are expected to be similar to COVID in general, there are some slight nuances to be aware of.

Overhead view of senior Asian woman carrying out a Covid-19 xbb rapid lateral flow test at home. She is holding a positive Coronavirus rapid self test device, feeling worried
The most recent and contagious Omicron subvariant is XBB. (Photo via Getty Images)

Making matters worse, it's also cold and flu season — two conditions that have similar symptoms to COVID. Moreover, the rise of respiratory syncytial virus in Canada, which presents similarly to the common cold, can make it hard to determine which illness you actually have.

As such, with this year's "tripledemic," your cold symptoms could actually mean that you have COVID, the flu or RSV, which make you sicker than the regular cold virus. Moreover, these conditions are extremely contagious, so it's important you do your best to avoid spreading your illness to others.

So, what's the difference between a cold, the flu, RSV and COVID-19? And what are the key symptoms of the new COVID variant, XBB? Read on to learn how your symptoms can give you important clues.

New COVID-19 variant XBB symptoms

According to Huff Post, the most common COVID XBB symptoms are body aches and congestion.

However, XBB also has symptoms similar to other COVID strands, such as cough, sore throat, fever, chills, fatigue and headaches.

"In general, I think people are more achy and still have congestion and headache," Dr. Julie Parsonnet, an infectious diseases specialist with Stanford Health Care, told HuffPost.

Less common symptoms include shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell.

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The common cold

Late last year, the New York Times released a chart outlining the nuances among symptoms and illnesses running rampant this time of year.

Colds are probably the least severe virus you can catch, with a cough, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat being the most common symptoms.

Headaches, fatigue and body aches are sometimes associated with colds, while difficulty breathing, loss of taste and smell, fever, vomiting and diarrhea are rare symptoms.

The flu

The flu is characterized by cough, fatigue, fever, headaches, muscle pain and body aches.

Sometimes, patients with the flu can have a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, vomiting and diarrhea.

Difficulty breathing, wheezing, and loss of taste and smell are rarely present.

woman in bed with her computer coughing into her sleeve
Colds are probably the least severe virus you can catch. (Photo via Getty Images)

RSV

The RSV virus is currently taking the world by storm, with hospitals in North America being overloaded with RSV patients.

According to the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases, RSV is a virus that infects the respiratory tract (i.e. the lungs and airways).

Although RSV can affect anyone of any age, it's most common in infants and children. In fact, it's so common that by the age of two, most infants and children have been infected with some form of RSV.

RSV can be life-threatening, especially for infants and older adults with a history of congestive heart failure, asthma or other breathing issues.

The symptoms that occur most often include coughing, wheezing and a runny or stuffy nose.

Sometimes, patients can have headaches, a fever, difficulty breathing and sneezing. Rarely, people with RSV have fatigue, muscle aches, a sore throat, loss of taste or smell, vomiting or diarrhea.

Young Girl Sneezing and Blowing Nose With Tissue.
Although RSV can affect anyone of any age, it's most common in infants and children. (Photo via Getty Images)

COVID-19

Despite common misconceptions, COVID-19 is still a serious concern and can spread more easily and cause more severe illness than the flu in some people. It can also take longer for COVID symptoms to appear, meaning you can spread the virus before you know you're sick.

Most commonly, patients experience cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, headaches and a sore throat. Sometimes people will have a fever, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, a runny nose, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhea. Rarely, patients will be wheezing.

How to tell the difference between COVID-19, the flu, RSV and the common cold

With the possibility of many Canadians getting sick this cold season, it's important to honestly and accurately assess your most common symptoms. However, making that distinction is more difficult than it sounds as many symptoms can overlap.

The one symptom you can experience with COVID-19 and not with influenza, a cold or RSV is loss of smell. However, many people with the coronavirus don’t lose their sense of smell and Barrett says it’s not a "useful tool to differentiate."

A woman squeezing the sample liquid on a test strip while carrying out a Covid-19 rapid self test at home.
Despite common misconceptions, COVID-19 is still a serious concern. (Photo via Getty Images)

With a variety of infections giving off similar effects, self-diagnosing is not a safe option.

When experiencing any of the mentioned symptoms, the only way to know for sure is to get tested by a medical professional.

What you can do to stay safe

By now the public is well versed in ways to reduce the spread of COVID, RSV, the cold and the flu — and experts advise more of the same, especially when it comes to travelling.

The World Health Organization says it will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available on COVID and other conditions. When it comes to what you can be doing, the recommendations haven’t changed.

Wearing a good mask (experts have advised that Canadians ditch their single-layer cloth masks in favour of medical masks), social distancing especially when indoors, staying home when sick and washing your hands regularly are good practices everyone should be maintaining throughout the cold and flu season and the pandemic.

Moreover, get your booster vaccine and flu shot. Health officials are urging Canadians that the best way to protect from COVID and the flu is to get vaccinated if you are eligible.

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