Covid symptoms but not testing positive? Doctor explains why people are falling ill

As much as we’d all love to move on and forget about Covid, the virus continues to be circulation. But it isn’t the only virus going around, which might explain why many people are falling ill but not testing positive

Woman wearing mask and checking her temperature
Covid is not the only virus spreading around the UK

Covid may not be as dangerous or fatal as it once was, even as new variants like Deltacron and sub-variants like stealth Omicron continue to make rounds causing a surge in cases in the UK.

However in recent weeks, many people have begun to report that they are “feeling rubbish” despite lateral flow tests coming back negative.

Believe it or not, it might not actually be Covid. While most other viruses were forgotten amid the pandemic, they still exist. So you might be feeling ill, not because of Covid, but due to a later-than-usual flu season.

Dr Philip Lee, a West London consultant physician in acute medicine explains why there more flu outbreaks now.

Why are we feeling ill without testing positive for Covid?

Flu season in the UK is usually between colder months of December and March


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Remember the flu? With a long list of Covid symptoms taking over most of our lives in the past two years, it might be difficult to remember a time when we had influenza.

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 explained: “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 rounds a bit longer than usual. He said: “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) have warned might cause mild, cold-like symptoms.

Dr Conall Watson, a consultant epidemiologist for the UKHSA, said : “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 its own. However, it 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 the norovirus. The virus which 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?

Flu comes on suddenly while Covid symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear


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Covid and the flu do have some similar symptoms. 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 occurs 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 the 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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