The world faces additional troubling challenges when flu season and the coronavirus pandemic occur at the same time in colder months. Both are viral infections with similar symptoms, making it hard to recognize which virus is the cause. Trying to care for patients with both influenza (flu) and COVID-19 could also overwhelm hospitals and healthcare systems.
What are the symptoms that the flu and novel coronavirus share? Read on to learn more about the similarities and differences between these contagious viruses, and how to help protect yourself this fall and winter from contracting either one.
1. Don’t Underestimate the Flu
This fall and winter could be one of the most complicated public health times we have. Though not currently as big a threat to human lives as COVID-19, the flu still kills thousands of people every year. How deadly the flu might be each year depends on the severity of the current strain, as well as a population’s high-risk factors for severe illness.
2. Risk Points of Flu and COVID-19
The CDC states that risk factors for both viruses include advanced age (over 65), pregnancy, and certain pre-existing medical conditions.
High-risk underlying conditions for severe flu symptoms include asthma, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. High-risk underlying conditions for COVID-19 include the following list from the CDC website:
- Chronic kidney disease
- Immunocompromised state (a weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant
- Obesity, with a BMI of 30 or higher
- Serious heart conditions, including heart failure and coronary heart disease
- Sickle cell disease
- Type 2 diabetes mellitus
3. How Both Viruses Spread
According to the CDC, the flu and coronavirus are spread in similar ways. Respiratory droplets can be passed from person to person in close proximity (within six feet of each other) through talking, sneezing or coughing. When droplets of either flu or COVID-19 land near a person’s nose or mouth, they can be inhaled and cause a viral infection.
It’s important to note that coronavirus is more contagious, spreading more quickly and easily than the flu. COVID-19 spread can also happen as “superspreader events” where many people can be infected at one time, from one source.
4. Flu Symptoms vs. Coronavirus Symptoms
According to the CDC, both viral infections share the following symptoms:
- Fever and chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pains and body aches
- Sometimes vomiting or diarrhea for certain people, though more often in children
Are there any symptom differences? Yes. A coronavirus infection commonly includes a “new loss of taste or smell” whereas the flu does not.
Coronavirus can also lead to severe symptoms like new confusion, chest pain, blue lips or face and an inability to stay awake. These symptoms require immediate emergency care.
5. How Do You Know Which Virus You’ve Contracted?
The only way for even your doctor to know for sure if you have the flu or COVID-19 is to get tested. You would likely automatically be asked to take a COVID-19 test to rule out or confirm this infection first.
Call your doctor’s office to ask their advice about your symptoms, and where you should go for testing. A COVID-19 test is usually conducted by swabbing inside a person’s nose or mouth to collect a sample. This is called a viral test and determines whether or not you’ve currently contracted the virus. If you test positive, you and your doctor can decide the best treatments.
6. What Are the Differences in Flu and COVID-19 Treatments?
Antiviral drugs proven to treat the flu are usually available when needed. Doctors will probably also suggest plenty of fluids, rest, and over-the-counter meds like Tylenol to reduce fever.
For COVID-19, similar treatments can be helpful with mild symptoms. Doctors are still learning which medications and protocols bring the best results when the symptoms become more serious. Severe cases of COVID-19 may require the aid of a respirator at the hospital if blood oxygen levels dip too low.
COVID-19 can be deadly, even with access to the best health care services. So far, the best treatment for COVID-19 is to avoid catching it.
7. How To Avoid Getting Sick This Fall/Winter
It’s extremely important this flu season to continue being diligent about COVID-19 prevention practices. The same strategies — physical distancing, wearing masks, and hand cleansing — we use to stop the spread of COVID can help prevent catching the flu.
One important step we all should take. It’s more important than ever for everyone to get the flu vaccine, especially older adults.