Is a new ‘super cold’ with COVID-like symptoms spreading?

With winter coming and Australians resuming normal life amid easing restrictions, the floodgates have opened to a myriad of pathogens – and some of them are causing an illness very difficult to differentiate from COVID-19.

Of particular concern is a so-called “super cold”, which is not simply one new mega-virus but an onslaught of many different viruses hitting unprepared immune systems.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners chair and head of general practice at The University of Notre Dame, Dr Charlotte Hespe told about the differences between a cold and COVID, and what that means for those who fall ill.

Influenza or the “flu”, just like COVID-19, is a highly contagious respiratory illness – they can share many of the same symptoms but are born from different viruses.

A cold – or an upper respiratory tract infection – has symptoms largely experienced from the neck upwards: for example, coughing, sneezing, phlegm and runny eyes.

So a “super cold” with symptoms identical to COVID-19 could actually be more of a super flu, as body aches, extreme exhaustion, fever and headaches are the symptoms which usually distinguish a flu from a cold.

Dr Hespe explained that upper respiratory infection symptoms were also symptoms of influenza and COVID, so there was an overlap of symptoms “like a Venn diagram” which made diagnosing the illness difficult without a GP analysis.

The loss of taste and smell were the biggest warning signs of COVID, but are less prevalent now than with earlier variants.

As COVID symptoms become less prominent following multiple vaccinations, colds and COVID are becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate, however Dr Hespe said a RAT test was still the best way to find out.

“First off, get your RAT test to see if it’s COVID, and then preferably do a telehealth call first to decide whether you then need a clinical exam as well,” Dr Hespe told

“Usually we can give appropriate advice over the video.

“With so much COVID going around, there’s no doubt that a vast majority of these infections are still going to be COVID.”

Taking a toll on sensitive immune systems
Over the last two years Dr Hespe said “we’ve had a ridiculously respiratory-tract-infection-free zone”, and we’ve become complacent with not having viruses around us.

“There are also those whose immune system hasn’t responded to the vaccines as well as we would have hoped, and they are also getting sick, so we need to have that as a caveat,” she explained.

Without having contact with regular viral infections during that time, Dr Hespe said our bodies had not had “the regular reminder to our immune system to have a good response”.

“By having that two years out, now when we see the virus, we’re getting potentially sicker than we might have been if we had been exposed to it on a frequent basis.

“Our poor old immune system has gone into a bit of shock, and people are being quite symptomatic.

“The big thing to remember is that they’re not viruses that cause you to go into hospital by-and-large.”

Dr Hespe also pointed out that a new cohort of the population may be especially vulnerable.

“We actually have two years of small children who have not been exposed to any of these viruses at any time at all,” she said.

“So we’re going to unfortunately have a major whammy.

“(Viruses) mainly affect either ends of our population – little babies and children, and the elderly … as well as the immuno-compromised.”

Tackling flu season
As borders reopen, so too comes an influx of influenza and other respiratory tract viruses, which have developed unseen over the last two years, and which we do not yet have immunity to.

“The flu has already entered Australia, it was detected in late December to late January with people coming in from overseas, which we knew would happen.”

Dr Hespe said the European influenza usually entered Australia in January and February, gaining traction among our own community in May and June.

“We’ll have to battle them in the next few months. These viruses love winter,” she said.

The answer to smooth sailing through flu season? Dr Hespe said it was through vaccination.

Vaccination fatigue is normal, and something we were all experiencing, she said, but a flu shot remained the best way to ensure against unnecessary fatalities.