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As temperatures cool down and people spend more time indoors, a Canadian doctor predicts people will see a mix of viruses during cold and flu season this year.
Dr. Stephanie Smith says that's due to a variety of reasons, including the removal of restrictions and mask mandates except in certain circumstances, along with a return to international travel.
The University of Alberta infectious diseases professor says the mix of viruses people see will include COVID-19 cases, as well as influenza and other respiratory viruses.
"We've had a couple of years where we really haven't had much in the way of other respiratory viruses, so people's immunity that we often build up over the course of each respiratory season has waned, making it more susceptible," she tells Yahoo Canada.
Australia’s bad flu season is a warning sign
Doctors typically look to the southern hemisphere, which goes through its influenza season during a Canadian summer, to get clues of what people can expect in the north.
This year, Australia's flu season, which runs from April to October, has been the country’s worst in five years.
Based on that, Canadians may be in for a tough season.
"The good news is that it does appear that the vaccine that we will have available in the fall does cover the strains that were circulating in Australia," Smith says.
Will there be a new COVID-19 variant?
In terms of a fall wave or a new variant, Smith says that's difficult to foresee.
The infectious disease specialist notes that there have been smaller COVID-19 waves since April and throughout the summer, but she expects a slightly higher increase in the fall.
Smith emphasizes that there has been no indication that there will be a novel variant.
"We're mostly seeing [COVID-19 variants] BA.4 for BA.5 at this point in time, and the population as a whole has a fair amount of immunity against COVID through infection and through vaccination," she shares. "That should blunt the impact of transmission a little bit in terms of fewer hospitalizations."
Differing between cold, flu and COVID-19
As with previous years, one difficulty people may have is differentiating between cold, flu and COVID-19 symptoms, since they can present identically. While it may have been easier telling the illnesses apart when lack of taste and smell were a prominent COVID-19 trait, Smith says doctors are not seeing that symptom as frequently with Omicron.
One distinguishing feature doctors are seeing more of with COVID-19 is gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, which Smith says is not typical for influenza or other respiratory viruses.
If someone thinks they may have COVID-19, experts advise them to isolate and get tested. A rapid test can provide someone with a quick solution to understand what the symptoms are related to.
Stay home if you’re sick
If someone starts experiencing symptoms such as a sore throat, the message remains the same — stay home, if possible. If someone must go out, it's recommend they wear a face mask.
"If everyone did that with any cold or flu symptoms, then we would actually have way less transmission and everyone would be well protected," Smith says.
With cold and flu season coming soon, Smith also advises everyone to stay up-to-date with both COVID-19 and flu vaccines.
"I think there's been a real drop off in terms of interest in getting a booster for COVID, and I am concerned that there's going to be lower uptake with influenza vaccination," she says. "But both of these vaccinations, I still think, are very worthwhile and should be considered in preparation for the respiratory virus season."