by Shawn Chitnis

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — People are contracting multiple respiratory viruses including the common cold as winter approaches, adding to the ongoing concerns for infections of COVID-19 and influenza in the weeks ahead.

“I think that the terms cold and flu are used pretty loosely,” said Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University. “There are some features that might be more indicative of one versus the other but, really, if you have any kind of cold-type symptoms, the only way you know if it’s COVID or not is if you get tested.”

Dr. Liu says that, as more people get vaccinated, the chances of having mild symptoms that are similar to a cold increase with COVID-19 infections. While viruses are constantly mutating, including COVID and the common cold, the diseases people are catching now are likely not significantly worse than before the pandemic. And, just as with COVID, a cold can make someone who is immunocompromised very sick.

“If you think it’s probably just a cold, I’d still encourage you to get tested because it does have a lot of implications for the people around you,” Liu told KPIX. “I haven’t seen anything that would suggest that the respiratory viruses that people are getting this year that are not COVID are any worse than any other year.”

Remaining vigilant and getting tested early can also improve the treatment health care workers provide thanks to early detection. Liu says a testing plan for a family is a smart approach heading into the holidays.

“Treatments work best if given early and most of these treatments don’t work that well if someone has had symptoms for a long time,” she said.

Miranda Choi is a pharmacist at Daniel’s Pharmacy in San Francisco. She has worked in the industry for 25 years and remembers 2020 was unlike any other flu season in her career.

“Last year the cold and flu season was not as crazy because everyone has the mask on,” Choi said. “I think you should to protect yourself and the people around you.”

So far, customers are primarily buying masks to stop the spread of viruses including the common cold. She says over-the-counter medications to treat symptoms are not selling more than usual. She expects that may change by the end of the month.

One man walking past the pharmacy on Thursday said he is taking all the necessary precautions, including wearing a mask, getting the COVID vaccine and a flu shot.

“I don’t leave home without it,” said Miguel Rosales about his mask. “I hate to say this because then I’m going to probably jinx myself but I haven’t had a cold in over 15 years.”

Unlike in 2020, when families were more careful about gathering indoors, this holiday season is expected to bring a lot of relatives from different households into the same room. These activities are expected to help spread viruses in the winter and increase activity of not only COVID but flu infections. Dr. Liu says that, as activity increases, the threshold to get tested will go down.

“If you have a common cold and if you don’t have COVID, certainly the risks are lower,” said Dr. Liu “Just having a running nose or a sore throat can be symptoms of any common cold virus and of flu and of SARS CoV-2.”

She also advised tracking what symptoms you’re experiencing and for how long to help medical staff. It also will inform possible treatment to know who else may be experiencing symptoms around you.