Is it COVID-19 or the Flu?
Health

Is it COVID-19 or the Flu?

Allison G.
Dec 16, 2020

The upcoming flu season is going to be unlike any other the United States has experienced recently. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic continues to ravage communities, and a simultaneous flu outbreak and COVID-19 outbreak in your community is not out of the realm of possibility. The best way to protect yourself is to take extra precautions to avoid putting yourself at risk for either or both infections.

COVID-19 has taken a significant toll on the American people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 300,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The provisional counts for COVID-19 deaths are based on the current mortality data flow from state reporting agencies to the National Vital Statistics System.1 The death count is expected to continue climbing through the coming months.

Although not always reported on with such rigor, influenza (“the flu”) also places a substantial burden on the American healthcare system each year. Numbers can vary greatly year to year due to a few different factors, including which influenza strain is predominant year-to-year, but the CDC does record broad estimates. Since 2010, the flu has been responsible for between 9 and 45 million total illnesses – including 140,000–810000 hospitalizations and 12,000–61,000 deaths annually.2

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have heard that the condition produces “flu-like” symptoms, which may make it confusing to distinguish between the two conditions. Learn more about differences and similarities between both respiratory conditions and what to do if you have been exposed to or infected with either:

COVID-19 vs. The Flu: Similarities

COVID-19 and the flu do have many similarities when it comes to signs and symptoms.

How They Spread

Both conditions are viral respiratory diseases that are very contagious. COVID-19 and the flu both spread easily between people within 6 feet of one another through respiratory droplets released while talking, sneezing or coughing. Both viruses can also spread through touching infected surfaces and then touching the mouth, nose or eyes.3

In both diseases, the symptoms can range from mild to severe and can take several days to show up after infection occurs. Because of this, people may not realize they have been infected with COVID-19 or the flu. During that time, they may unknowingly spread the disease to others before becoming aware they are sick.4

Signs and Symptoms

COVID-19 and the flu also present with many of the same symptoms – making it difficult to discern which condition a person has based on symptom review alone. These signs and symptoms include:3

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Tiredness
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • In children, nausea or vomiting.

Treatment

In mild cases, people can typically COVID-19 or the flu on their own by drinking plenty of fluids and getting rest. In more severe cases of both, hospitalization may be required to get someone stabilized.

COVID-19 vs. The Flu: Differences

Understanding the differences between COVID-19 and the flu is essential.

Virus Origin

The primary difference between COVID-19 and flu is that, despite annual strain changes, the flu is well-understood. COVID-19 is caused by an infection with a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), while the flu is caused by an infection with influenza viruses. Put simply, doctors know more about prevention and treatment for flu. The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly.5

Because COVID-9 is new, the vast majority of people do not yet have immunity to it. The exact mortality rate for COVID-19 is unknown to this point, but doctors and scientists do estimate it to be much higher than that of most flu strains.4

Symptoms

While COVID-19 and the flu share many symptoms, there are a few symptoms specific to COVID-19 that can help distinguish between the two infections. COVID-19 has been associated with the loss of taste and smell, which is not something that happens with the flu. About 40% of COVID-19 patients have reported a loss of smell, while between 38% and 55% have reported a loss of taste. This symptom can start anywhere from two days after infection to up to 14 days following the start of other symptoms.6

Additionally, COVID-19 symptoms tend to last longer than flu symptoms. Some patients experience symptoms, particularly shortness of breath and cough, for multiple weeks if not months. In general, flu symptoms tend to subside within two weeks of infection.

Treatment

Vaccines for COVID-19 have just started receiving approvals. Distribution of these vaccines is underway, but it is hard to estimate how long it will take to get enough people vaccinated to truly curb the spread of infection. Flu, on the other hand, has a readily-available vaccine every year. The flu vaccine, which is developed each year by the CDC based on the previous year’s strain, is generally effective in preventing infection from the most dangerous strains of the flu or in reducing the severity or duration of the flu.4

Although getting the flu shot is always highly advised, getting immunized this year is even more prudent given the COVID-19 pandemic – you do not want a co-infection. The flu shot is available in most pharmacies and clinics.6

Complications

The primary differences between COVID-19 and the flu lie in the fact that doctors and scientists are not precisely sure what long-term damage might look like in COVID-19 survivors. COVID-19 and flu infections can both lead to serious health complications, including acute respiratory distress syndrome, pneumonia, organ failure, heart attacks, inflammation of the heart or brain, stroke or even death. With the flu, secondary bacterial infections can sometimes occur.3 Complications associated with severe cases of COVID-19 seem to include long-term damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain and other organs. It is important to note that, because COVID-19 is so new, doctors are not sure about the full range of long-term health effects that may occur due to the virus.4

COVID-19 vs. The Flu: Bottom Line

The good news is there are precautions you can take to help protect yourself and others against infection from both COVID-19 and the flu this season. These important measures include:3

  • Staying away from large event and mass gatherings
  • Social distance, which includes keeping six feet of space between yourself and anyone not a member of your immediate household
  • Washing your hands for at soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you interface with people
  • Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 69% alcohol as often as you can
  • Wear a cloth mask when you are in a public space and cannot help but be near other people
  • Disinfecting and cleaning high touch surfaces each day, including doorknobs, electronics, light switches and countertops
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Use your elbow or a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze

Taking these measures can help you stay healthy through the upcoming flu season and reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 or passing it on to others.

Sources

  1. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Death Data and Resources. Last reviewed December 11, 2020.
  2. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disease Burden of Influenza. Last reviewed October 5, 2020.
  3. The Mayo Clinic. Coronavirus vs flu: Similarities and differences. Last reviewed December 9, 2020.
  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Coronavirus Disease 2019 vs. the Flu. Last reviewed December 10, 2020.
  5. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similarities and Differences Between Flu and COVID-19. Last reviewed October 6, 2020.
  6. New York-Presbyterian Hospital Health Matters. How to Tell the Difference Between COVID-19 vs. the Flu. Accessed December 14, 2020

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