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Why people are falling ill but not testing positive for Covid – doctor explains

Coronavirus may not be as dangerous as it once was for many people, even with new variants like Deltacron and sub-variants like Omicron continuing to do the rounds.

But in recent weeks plenty of people have started to complain of “feeling rubbish”, even though their lateral flow tests are coming back negative.

According to a doctor, this is because, against the odds, it may not actually be Covid-19 they are suffering with. Dr Philip Lee, a West London consultant physician in acute medicine, said there were a variety of viruses going around at the moment that many of us have just forgotten about – he pointed out that other viruses still exist, even though they have been overshadowed by Covid for the past two years.

Influenza – more commonly referred to as the flu – is a viral infection, which attacks your respiratory system such as your nose, throat and lungs. Dr Philip Lee told The Mirror : “Having had two years of washing your hands singing happy birthday twice, and wearing masks everywhere, all things that help stop all respiratory diseases; it’s unsurprising to see a rise as soon as all those things stop.”

Usually, the flu pops up in the colder months between December and March, when the air is more dry and people spend more time indoors. However, Dr Lee said that we might be seeing the flu making the rounds for a bit longer than usual. You can get more health and other story updates by subscribing to our newsletters here.

He added: “It’s a bit late in the year for flu. Usually we’d expect flu to peter out by around Easter, but we are seeing more patients test positive for flu, as well as other common cold type viruses.” Other viruses which are around at the moment include respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which the UK Health Security Agency(UKHSA) has warned might cause mild, cold-like symptoms.

Dr Conall Watson, a consultant epidemiologist for the UKHSA, also told The Mirror: “For most people, RSV means a common cold, but it is easily spread and is the leading cause of bronchiolitis in infants – inflammation of small airways in the lungs.” In most cases, both influenza and RSV clear up on their own.

But the illness can lead to respiratory issues and hospital admissions in young children, babies, and anyone with pre-existing respiratory problems. Another highly infectious virus that has seen a rise in infections in recent weeks is norovirus. This is a virus that impacts the stomach, causing vomiting and diarrhoea, is highly infectious and easily transmitted, but usually passes within a few days.

Professor Saheer Gharbia, gastrointestinal pathogens and food safety directorate for the UKHSA, said: “Norovirus, commonly known as the winter vomiting bug, has been at lower levels than normal throughout the pandemic but as people have begun to mix more, the numbers of outbreaks have started to increase again.”

What is the difference between Covid symptoms and symptoms of other viruses?

The symptoms for both Covid and the flu are very similar. However, the NHS highlights three classic symptoms of Covid as:

  • a new, continuous cough
  • a fever/high temperature
  • loss of or change to smell or taste

The loss or change to sense of smell or taste, which occurs with Covid, rarely happens with the flu. However, a cough does tend to be quite common with a cold or flu. People with the flu also experience symptoms like muscle aches, chills, headaches, tiredness, a sore throat and a runny or stuffed nose.

The main difference is how long the onset of the virus takes. A flu tends to come on quite suddenly – or within one to two days of being exposed to the virus. For Covid, symptoms typically appear two to 14 days after being exposed to the virus. In case of norovirus, symptoms tend to include sudden onset of nausea, projectile vomiting and diarrhoea. Sometimes, people suffer from a high temperature, abdominal pain and aching limbs due to the virus as well.

If you have norovirus, it’s recommended that you stay home from work or school until 48 hours after symptoms have completely cleared. Whether you have Covid or some other infectious viral illness, it’s important to wash your hands and keep away from vulnerable people if you have symptoms of any of the viruses.

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