Is it the Flu or COVID-19? Here’s What Doctors Say

By Janelle Ringer

Flu season is right around the corner. Like years before, doctors recommend taking preventative measures like washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose—advice that seems commonplace in an era of COVID-19.

The threat of flu paired with COVID-19 could be extremely dangerous; however, using proper precautions and knowing the symptoms can help limit the spread, said Ara Chrissian, MD, an interventional pulmonologist and critical care physician at Loma Linda University Health who regularly cares for patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

“By not taking preventative measures, such as the recommended flu vaccine, the flu season and the coronavirus pandemic could synergistically overwhelm the healthcare system,” Chrissian said.

The two viruses spread in a similar manner: mainly through respiratory droplets created during talking, coughing, or sneezing. The flu and COVID-19 viruses also have many symptoms in common. “They both can cause fever, cough, shortness of breath, headache, stuffy nose, body aches, sore throat, and exhaustion or fatigue. These symptoms alone cannot be used to differentiate between the two,” Chrissian said. “However, understanding some differences may help us suspect one over the other, optimize therapy, and aid in limiting spread.”

Flu, not COVID-19

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults who have the flu seem to be most contagious during the first four days of illness but may remain contagious for up to seven days. Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days, and if they don’t develop complications, they can avoid hospitalization and recover completely. Fortunately for patients who require medical attention, healthcare professionals are no stranger to the flu and are well equipped to treat it.

For flu patients, FDA-approved prescription influenza antiviral drugs are a great line of defense. “Those who may be hospitalized with flu or at higher risk for flu complications are treated with antiviral drugs as soon as possible and watched for new or worsening symptoms by providers who know how to fight this familiar beast,” Chrissian said.

Perhaps the most considerable difference in the two respiratory viruses is the availability of preventative treatments. “There are several approved influenza vaccines created each year in anticipation of the viruses likely to circulate that season,” Chrissian said. “The best and simplest way to protect yourself from the flu and help reduce the spread of the virus is to get vaccinated. There is as yet no vaccine to prevent COVID-19.”

COVID-19, not flu

A characteristic symptom of COVID-19 is a change in or loss of taste or smell. While this does not occur in everyone who gets COVID-19 and is also a symptom seen with common cold viral infections, it has not been associated with the flu. Additionally, if you know when you were exposed to someone with an illness, you can have a better idea of how long you may be contagious, even if you have mild or no symptoms.

“A person with COVID-19 can potentially spread the virus for up to twice as long as someone with the flu,” Chrissian said. “However, there are likely many factors that contribute to one’s contagiousness, which we are still learning.” The higher degree and duration of contagion seems to be especially notable in the elderly and those with certain underlying health conditions.

The CDC also states that COVID-19 has been linked to more superspreading events than flu, meaning the virus spreads more quickly and easily than influenza.

There are also additional complications common with COVID-19 that are not consistent with the flu, including multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children and the development of blood clots in the veins and arteries, leading to a stroke or heart attack.

When treating COVID-19, providers stay updated as new treatment options and a better understanding of the virus emerges. “We are still learning the full extent of how the virus impacts the body. Many studies, both nationally and globally, are underway to find the best treatments,” Chrissian said.