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Is it COVID-19 or the Flu? Here’s How to Test and Protect Yourself From Both

Prevention 28/09/2022 Korin Miller, Madeleine Haase

Nobody loves coming down with a nasty case of the flu. Compared to your typical cold, influenza can really wipe you out, leading to a high fever, deep chest coughs, overwhelming fatigue, and uncomfortable body aches all over.

This year’s flu season is predicted to be particularly bad, and similar to the last two years, flu season presents a unique challenge as the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout the U.S. And while the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered an “endemic” at this point, plenty of new cases are still showing up every day, and experts are expecting a surge in the coming winter months.

Both the flu and COVID-19 are expected to put a strain on our healthcare system during the colder months, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell the two apart because the symptoms can be nearly identical. “Both influenza and coronavirus are very dangerous,” says Rajeev Fernando, M.D., an infectious disease expert in Southampton, New York. “We have to be careful and concerned about both of them.”

Here’s what doctors know about how COVID-19 compares to the flu so far, which symptoms may present differently, and how to stay healthy.

COVID-19 symptoms vs. flu symptoms

sick woman in bed with thermometer © Thomas_EyeDesign - Getty Images sick woman in bed with thermometer

There’s a lot of overlap in symptoms between these two illnesses. But these are the main symptoms of COVID-19 to keep on your radar, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Symptoms can appear between two and 14 days after a person is infected, the CDC says.

The CDC lists these as the major symptoms of the flu:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea (although it’s more common in children than adults)

The flu comes on fast, typically one to four days after you have been infected. Keep in mind that not everyone with the flu develops a fever, but it is still common.

While both the flu and COVID-19 are believed to spread from person-to-person via respiratory droplets after a person talks, coughs, or sneezes, the CDC says COVID-19 is more contagious and has established more “super-spreading” events.

How do you know if your symptoms are due to COVID-19 or the flu?

It’s really difficult to tell the difference between the two, even for doctors. “The early symptoms of influenza and COVID can be identical,” Dr. Fernando says.

“Covid and the flu cause similar illnesses and it is not possible to reliably distinguish them based on symptoms,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

Only testing someone for the flu and COVID-19 can accurately determine the illness they are dealing with, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Without a test, we just don’t know for sure,” he says.

If you feel sick and you test negative for Covid, you can also get tested for the flu, says Dr. Watkins. “There are many other viruses that cause respiratory infections referred to as ‘influenza-like illness’,” so it’s best to know what you have so you can know the best course of treatment.

Is COVID-19 more deadly than the flu?

It’s important to note that both COVID-19 and the flu are dangerous illnesses. According to preliminary data from the CDC, anywhere between 5,000 to 14,000 people died of the flu during the 2021-2022 season, much lower than previous years thanks to mask-wearing and social distancing. CDC data also found that, as of Sept. 21, more than 1,050,800 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Based on these numbers alone, COVID-19 is currently more deadly than the flu. “There’s no question: COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu in terms of lethality,” Dr. Russo says. “Our defenses to COVID-19 are really minimal when compared to influenza, which most people have been exposed to already.”

How are COVID-19 and the flu treated?

For mild cases of both illnesses, doctors recommend supportive care if you’re not hospitalized. That means staying home, getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and taking fever reducing medications like Tylenol until your symptoms start to improve.

The flu is generally treated with antiviral drugs to help make the course of illness milder and shorten the time you are sick, the CDC says. Those medications include: oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), peramivir (Rapivab), and baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza).

With the flu, healthy people usually don’t have trouble recovering. Those in higher-risk groups may develop complications, including sinus or ear infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, sepsis, lung damage, and more—some of which can be deadly.

If you test positive for COVID, CDC recommends isolating yourself from others for 5 days, or until you test negative. Depending on whether or not you have more severe symptoms, check these CDC guidelines for everything you need to know about protecting others while you are still infectious.

There are some options available for COVID treatment, the most relevant being Paxlovid, Pfizer’s Covid-19 pill. However, Paxlovid is typically only suggested for use in high risk patients, says Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

With COVID-19, even healthy people have reported having a hard time recovering. Certain coronavirus patients may experience symptoms for months after “recovering” from the virus, a condition known as long COVID, which is why getting vaccinated and protecting yourself, and others, from the virus is so important.

How to protect yourself from COVID and the flu

Experts stress the importance of getting your flu shot. “The first thing to do is to get vaccinated,” Dr. Schaffner stresses. The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months get a flu shot by the end of October, so your body has enough time to build up immunity to the circulating strains.

Even though the flu shot is not always 100% effective, it can help a person be less contagious and less sick if they do come down with a case, minimizing the risk of severe side effects.

As for COVID-19, the COVID vaccines and the follow-up boosters have proven effective against contracting the virus and effective against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. According to the CDC, third and fourth doses, aka boosters, offered substantial protection among adults with healthy immune systems.

If you have not yet received your first round of COVID vaccine shots, the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself, and others, from getting seriously sick. If you have received the first round of shots (and perhaps a booster or two), you may also be eligible for the new Omicron booster, specifically designed to protect against the latest slew of Omicron variants that have spread throughout the last year.

There’s a lot of recommended vaccines to get this season, and we know scheduling all those appointments can be a hassle. Luckily, doctors say that if you’re eligible for the new Omicron booster, you can go ahead and get your flu shot and the booster in the same sitting. Fair warning though: your arms might be slightly more sore than you bargained for!

On top of getting vaccinated, Dr. Schaffner Other than that, he recommends continuing all of the things you should already be doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in your area. “These things will protect not only against COVID-19, but also against influenza,” Dr. Schaffner says. That includes the following:

  • Social distancing from people outside of your household
  • Wearing a face mask in public
  • Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds frequently
  • Using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when you’re in a pinch
  • Disinfecting high-touch surfaces in your home
  • Covering a sneeze or cough with a tissue
  • Avoiding unnecessary travel
  • Avoiding large gatherings
  • Seeing a doctor if you develop symptoms

The bottom line

Experts are predicting a bad flu season, says Dr. Watkins. “I strongly encourage people to get vaccinated against both the flu and Covid. The benefits of these vaccines far outweigh the risks.” To find a COVID vaccine near you, go to https://www.vaccines.gov/.

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