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COVID-19 vs the Flu

Published on Jun. 01, 2021

Many health experts are warning that the upcoming 2020-21 flu season could be unlike any other, particularly amid the continued COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges our communities face include not only confusing the two respiratory diseases (which share similar symptoms), but managing two potentially dangerous outbreaks at once.

Familiarizing yourself with the similarities and differences between these two diseases can help you or your loved ones take the best preventative measures this upcoming flu season – like getting your flu shot – and help you get the right treatment at the right time you should become ill with either.  


COVID-19 vs the Flu: What's the Difference? 

Flu season happens every year in the U.S. in the fall and winter. COVID-19 has similar symptoms. How do you know if someone has the flu or COVID-19? What are the differences between these 2 illnesses? Can you get both at the same time? See how they compare below.

 

Flu (influenza)

COVID-19

Cause

Different types of flu viruses that spread each year.

A type of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.

How it Spreads

It spreads from person to person through coughing, sneezing, talking, or touching infected surfaces and touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

It spreads from person to person through coughing, sneezing, talking, or touching infected surfaces and touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Current research shows that it spreads more easily than the flu, but not as easily as measles.

Prevention

Wash your hands often, stay home if you feel ill, limit contact with other people, and avoid people who are sick.

Wash your hands often, stay home if you feel ill, limit contact with other people, and avoid people who are sick. Wear a face mask when around other people. Stay 6 feet or more away from others in public places. Follow instructions in your area for avoiding crowds and events.

Vaccine

Different types of flu vaccines are available each year. Getting a vaccine can help prevent or lessen symptoms of the flu. Talk with your healthcare provider about the type of vaccine that’s best for you and when to get it. If you are sick with any infection, get the flu vaccine as soon as you recover.

No vaccine is available yet. Medical companies are testing vaccines that may be used in the future.

Symptoms

They can be mild to severe, and can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Vomiting and diarrhea, more often in children

Some people have no symptoms. In other people, they can be mild to severe, and can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling short of breath
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

When Symptoms Start

Usually 1 to 4 days after infection

Usually 5 days after infection, but can start 2 to 14 days after infection

How Long a Person is Contagious

A person can spread the flu at least 1 day before symptoms start. Older kids and adults are most contagious for the first 3 to 4 days of symptoms. They can spread the virus up to 7 days after symptoms start. Babies and people with weak immune systems can be contagious longer

Researchers are still learning about this. It’s possible for a person to spread the virus about 2 days before symptoms start. They can spread the virus up to 10 days after symptoms start. People with no symptoms (asymptomatic) or who had symptoms that have gone away can still spread the virus for at least 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19 with a viral test.

Testing

There are different kinds of rapid flu tests. The tests are done by wiping a swab inside your nose or throat. The results can come back in 10 minutes to several hours. A saliva-based test is being developed. In some areas, a single test from the CDC for both flu and SARS CoV-2 may be available. This test is used to help public health experts track infection rates. It won’t replace separate flu and COVID-19 tests.

There are different kinds of tests for COVID-19. Some check for active infection. Others check for antibodies in the blood that are a sign of a past COVID-19 infection. In some areas, a single test from the CDC for both flu and SARS CoV-2 may be available. This test is used to help public health experts track infection rates. It won’t replace separate flu and COVID-19 tests.

Treatment

The flu may be treated with antiviral medicine. This can help ease symptoms. It can also shorten the amount of time you’re sick. These medicines need to be taken as soon as possible when you start to feel sick. Antibiotics are not used because they don’t work on the flu virus. But antibiotics may be used to prevent or treat an infection by bacteria that can sometimes happen after having the flu. Other treatment for the flu includes care to ease symptoms. This includes rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and pain and fever medicine as needed. In severe cases, you may need time in the hospital to treat complications from flu.

There are no antivirals currently approved to treat COVID-19. But many kinds of treatments are being tested by researchers. Antibiotics are not used because they don’t work on the virus that causes COVID-19. But antibiotics may be used to prevent or treat an infection by bacteria that may happen after getting COVID-19. Other treatment for COVID-19 include care to ease symptoms. This includes rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and pain and fever medicine as needed. In severe cases, you may need time in the hospital for supplemental oxygen, IV fluids, and other care.

Possible Complications

Can include:

  • Bacterial infections
  • Ear infection
  • Inflammation of muscle tissues (myositis or rhabdomyolysis)
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)
  • Multiple-organ failure
  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis
  • Sinus infection
  • Worsening of chronic conditions of the lungs, heart, and nervous system
  • Worsening of diabetes

Can include:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
  • Bacterial infections
  • Heart attack
  • Inflammation of muscle tissues (myositis or rhabdomyolysis)
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)
  • Multiple-organ failure
  • Pneumonia
  • Respiratory failure
  • Sepsis
  • Stroke
  • Worsening of chronic conditions of the lungs, heart, and nervous system
  • Worsening of diabetes
  • Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a rare complication that causes inflammation of blood vessels and organs

You CAN Prevent the Flu!

You can prevent the flu this season by taking one simple step: Get a flu vaccine. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated. This includes pregnant women. [1] Flu shots can help combat the number of serious flu cases that can lead to hospitalizations and potential death. Currently, experts also anticipate that those who get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time may be more likely to have severe complications or die from either illness. With COVID-19 circulating this year, it's very important that you prevent getting the flu by getting vaccinated. 

Health experts warn that it’s more important than ever to get the flu shot this fall to help mitigate a dangerous flu-COVID-19 collision. It’s estimated that a severe flu outbreak—coinciding with COVID spikes as a second wave—could mean 50 to 100% more hospitalizations on top of those from the flu, further overwhelming hospitals and draining resources. (Source: Medscape, 2020).

Don't believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of the flu. It's impossible. The vaccine does not contain a form of the flu virus that can give you the flu. The injected form of the vaccine is made from pieces of dead flu virus cells. After getting the vaccine, some people have mild flu-like symptoms as a side effect. This is not the same thing as having the flu.

If you are concerned about the cost of a flu vaccine, check with your local health department for places near you where free flu shots are given. Many insurers also cover flu vaccines at no cost to their members.


What to do if You Suspect You Have COVID-19 or the Flu

Because COVID-19 and the flu share many similar symptoms, it’s easy to confuse them –What you might suspect is the flu could really be COVID-19 or vice versa. If you are mild to moderately sick, health officials at the Health Department and Munson Healthcare ask that you please stay home and take care of yourself. 

For conditions that can be classified as more severe:

  • It’s also important to seek medical help if you are experiencing severe symptoms. Learn the emergency warning signs of flu and of COVID-19.
  • Your family doctor, local health department, or nearby walk-in clinic can diagnose the root of your symptoms and make sure you get the right treatment. 
  • Call your healthcare provider before you visit any healthcare facility.
  • Do NOT go to the Emergency Room unless you are sick enough to require emergency care.
  • Your primary care provider will give you direction regarding testing.
  • A doctor's order is REQUIRED for COVID-19 testing.  

There is a test that can determine either flu or COVID-19.