Tara Storjohann and Robert Medina

Tara Storjohann (left) and Robert Medina.

More than a year ago, the term “COVID-19” was nowhere to be found in our vocabulary. We were at the tail end of the “cold and flu season” and were looking forward to the spring and summer seasons. 

Little did we know our lives would be forever changed by this new virus. The uncertainty of the virus brought hysteria, anxiety and even hoarding of toilet paper. Let’s just say 2020 was one that we do not want to repeat. 

Thankfully, a year later, we are at the brink of overcoming this pandemic. However, there are individuals who have been fortunate to not become infected by the virus but are still at risk, and individuals who are hesitant about receiving the vaccine. 

What is the difference between COVID-19, the common cold and the flu infections?

To help answer this question, let’s begin with the mechanism behind how each virus infects the human body. All three infections are caused by a different type of virus. The SARs-CoV-2 causes COVID-19 infections, influenza A or B causes the flu infection, and rhinoviruses can cause a common cold infection. 

The National Institute of Health defines a virus as a small group of DNA or RNA surrounded by a “coat” that needs a home (human cells) to multiply. Most of the time, the virus kills the cell during this process, leading to damage of the home. All three infections can affect the respiratory tract, which can make it hard to determine which infection you may have. 

There are a few signs and symptoms that are common between the three. These include cough, sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose. COVID-19 and flu infections can present as body aches, fevers, fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath as well as the aforementioned symptoms.

Distinctively, COVID-19 is known to cause loss of taste and/or smell, which rarely occurs in flu and common cold infections. Anyone who is concerned or uncertain about their symptoms should contact their health care provider. Most symptoms overlap between each infection, and there is also the possibility of being infected by more than one virus at once. It is always best to speak with a health care professional to help determine the best route of care. 

Is wearing a mask effective at preventing COVID-19 infections?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been at the forefront for making recommendations and guidance statements to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Wearing masks is one of the main precautions recommended by the CDC. The purpose of wearing a mask is to protect other individuals from respiratory droplets. Masks are a simple barrier that help to catch droplets that are expelled when we talk, cough, sneeze, shout or sing. It is a common misconception that masks offer us full protection from other’s respiratory contaminants. Although wearing a mask offers some self-protection, CDC is studying how well masks protect you from breathing in the virus. Factors such as the type of fabric, the number of layers of fabric, and the overall mask fit are being assessed to help determine protection. The more we wear our masks, the more prevention and protection we have in decreasing the spread of our respiratory droplets to others.  

Can any of the COVID-19 vaccines on the market infect you with COVID-19?

No, simply put, none of the vaccines on the market can infect you with the virus. No part of the vaccine contains the live virus. There are two vaccines, produced by Pfizer and Moderna, that received emergency authorization by the FDA to aid in the prevention of COVID-19 (Johnson & Johnson was temporarily pulled from the market). The vaccines work by allowing your body to produce antibodies so you can fight the virus if exposed. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use a messenger RNA (mRNA) mechanism for antibody production, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses an adenovirus vector mechanism to develop antibodies. Although these are two different mechanisms, all three vaccines help to stimulate antibody production. 

We can look at this process like putting together a piece of furniture. When you receive a vaccine, you are getting a microscopic instruction manual. This manual tells your body to create a specific protein (builds the furniture). Our immune system then creates antibodies to recognize this protein in the future. Let’s say we are then exposed to COVID-19 (new piece of furniture) that is made up of a similar protein. Our body is ready to recognize and defend itself because it is prepared. It has read the instruction manual. This process requires our immune system to work extremely hard and can cause symptoms such as fever and fatigue. These symptoms are not to be confused with similar symptoms caused by COVID-19. 

Hopefully the end of the pandemic is near. Hang in there and continue to follow the recommendations put forth by factual sources like the CDC and FDA. We will soon overcome this pandemic.