As we approach the start of flu season this fall, many people who become ill may be unsure whether they have the flu or COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. ThedaCare’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jennifer Frank, sheds some light on the differences between these two viruses.
“It can be difficult to distinguish between influenza and COVID-19,” said Dr. Frank. “The two diseases share similar symptoms, so testing may be needed to confirm a diagnosis. There are tests that differentiate between the flu virus and COVID-19, which will help healthcare providers determine the best course of treatment for those who become sick enough to seek medical attention.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) common symptoms that COVID-19 and influenza share include:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
The primary symptom that differentiates COVID-19 from the flu is a sudden loss of taste or smell. According to Dr. Frank, generally the flu does not cause the loss of these senses.
“Both COVID-19 and the flu are highly contagious respiratory illnesses that can be especially dangerous for those in at-risk categories,” Dr. Frank observed. “For both diseases, that includes the elderly, those with chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease or who are obese, and those whose immune systems are compromised.”
Dr. Frank also noted the risk of complications for healthy children is higher with the flu than with COVID-19.
“However, infants and children with underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for complications from both the flu and COVID-19,” she said.
For those who believe they are ill with COVID-19, the CDC recommends this self-care:
- Stay home except to get medical treatment; avoid any public transportation.
- Rest; take over-the-counter medicines to relieve your symptoms and acetaminophen to help you feel better.
- Separate yourself from others in your household, use a separate bathroom, and wear a mask when near others.
- Stay in touch with your medical provider. If you believe you need to be seen, call your primary care provider before arriving to a clinic or emergency department.
- Monitor your symptoms and follow advice from your provider.
For those suffering from the flu, the CDC recommends these self-care activities:
- Take everyday precautions: Limit contact with others; cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing/sneezing; wash your hands often with soap and water or a hand sanitizer; clean and disinfect surfaces you touch.
- Drink lots of fluids.
- Treat aches, fever and coughs with over-the-counter medications.
- Stay home until 24 hours after you’ve had no fever without the aid of fever-reducing drugs.
- Take antiviral drugs, if prescribed by your doctor.
“There are prescription antiviral drugs that can be used to treat the flu and reduce complications,” explained Dr. Frank. “At this point with COVID-19, a variety of drugs are helping those patients recover, but the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has only given approval for a few drug treatments to be used.”
First and foremost, anyone over the age of six months should be vaccinated against the flu to reduce the spread of that disease. There is no vaccine for COVID-19.
“Both the seasonal flu and COVID-19 are spread primarily by droplets released into the air when infected people cough, laugh, sneeze and talk,” said Dr. Frank. “These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or be inhaled into the lungs.”
With COVID-19, it also may be possible for a person to become infected by physical human contact (e.g. shaking hands) or by touching a surface or object that has the COVID-19 virus on it and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.
“That’s why the primary recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are: wear a mask in public, keep a socially distanced minimum of six feet between yourself and anyone with whom you don’t live with and wash your hands frequently,” Dr. Frank said. “In reality, the recommended COVID-19 precautions could help reduce the spread of the flu this fall. That would be a great added benefit of following them.”
Both the flu and COVID-19 may be spread to others before those infected begin showing symptoms. In the case of COVID-19, people who are asymptomatic can also spread the virus.
Once infected with the flu or COVID-19 virus, individuals may begin to develop symptoms within days.
“Typically people develop symptoms of the flu anywhere from one to four days after exposure,” Dr. Frank said. “With COVID-19, infection can take longer. Five days after exposure seems to be a common number. Symptoms can appear as early as two days or as late as 14 days. The time range varies for reasons we don’t understand.”
Also, health experts believe it is possible to have the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously.
“As for recovery, flu patients who do not develop complications generally feel better within a few days to two weeks,” Dr. Frank said. “Those with complications will likely need medical attention and their recovery will be delayed until that complicating illness is cleared up.”
Recovery for COVID-19 patients is much less definable.
“The severity of the disease can range from those who remain asymptomatic and never actually get sick to those who have a mild illness that lasts a few days to those who become seriously ill,” Dr. Frank said. “There is so much unknown about the coronavirus and the effect it has on various people; it’s hard to predict what recovery will look like for each person.”
Dr. Frank is asking every community member to take action to help prevent the spread of the flu and COVID-19.
“This may be a challenging year as we possibly combat the flu and COVID-19 at the same time,” she said. “Our goal is to help everyone stay as healthy as possible to avoid contracting either of these diseases. That’s why it’s so important everyone gets a flu shot and follows COVID-19 precaution guidelines. That’s how we can best protect ourselves, those we love and everyone around us.”