How to tell the difference between symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu (because they can look very similar)
Believe it or not this year will be the third winter we owe navigate COVID-19. And although vaccines are widely available for adults in the United States, vaccination rates are nowhere close to where they need to be for the pandemic to truly end. That means we’re in store for another tricky cold and flu season, where it might be difficult to tell the difference between flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms.
We wish we could tell you that there is still a surefire way to differentiate the symptoms of COVID and the flu, but for the most part there isn’t – and that’s part of what makes the coronavirus so devious. . But what we can provide you with is expert advice on flu and COVID-19 symptoms, and what to consider when you’re feeling bad. Here’s what to know and tips to help you tell the difference (and when to see a doctor).
Flu Symptoms Versus COVID-19 Symptoms: Similarities and Differences
The challenge of asking questions about the differences between flu and COVID-19 symptoms is that there are actually very few. In fact, the two viral conditions share an overlapping set of symptoms, which the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention (CDC) include:
Fever or feeling feverish/have chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing
Runny or stuffy nose
Muscle pain or stiffness
Vomiting and diarrhea
The CDC, as well as the doctors we spoke with, note that if a change or loss of taste and / or smell is more commonly associated with COVID-19, it can also happen with other illnesses, such as the flu or a sinus infection. In addition, as Suzanne Ferrée Turner, MD, a family physician and founder of Vine Medical Associates in Roswell, Ga., points out that it’s also entirely possible to have COVID-19 without losing your sense of taste and / or smell.
“When upper respiratory symptoms like cough, runny nose, and fever occur, it’s very difficult at first to know if you have a cold, the flu, or COVID,” explains David Cutler, MD, a family physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “There may be clues, such as loss of taste and smell suggesting COVID, high fever and body aches suggesting flu, sore throat, and a runny nose without fever suggesting a simple cold, but these symptomatic clues are far from certain. “
According to Dr. Turner, although the flu and COVID-19 look very similar during the first two to four days of illness, there are later clues that may help differentiate the two. “The flu usually starts suddenly and breaks out one to four days after exposure; the flu tends to go away in three to seven days,” she explains. “COVID can have a longer ‘trail’ – up to 14 days after exposure, and COVID has a three to seven day ‘smoldering’ case, with worsening days four to seven after symptoms appear. Either viral infection can cause illness and can, in populations at risk, lead to pneumonia and death. ”
Flu and COVID symptoms you shouldn’t ignore
Some flu and COVID symptoms should always be taken seriously, because regardless of your official diagnosis, they can be potentially dangerous.
“There are certainly symptoms for either disease that warrant medical attention,” Jordan Smith, PharmD, says assistant professor of clinical sciences at High Point University. “If patients are otherwise healthy and have mild symptoms – such as fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, loss of taste and smell – they can take precautionary measures like staying home, wear masks, and at rest. However, if these symptoms are accompanied by shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to sleep or stay awake, or pale skin , the patient should seek immediate medical attention. “
In addition, people over 65 or those with cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease (such as asthma), diabetes, cancer or chronic kidney disease, those who are immunocompromised, those who smoke cigarettes and those who are pregnant are also at increased risk for complications and should be especially careful to look for problematic symptoms, notes Dr. Smith. “Patients should stay home when they are sick, separate as much as possible from others and call their doctor or local health department if they feel the symptoms are getting worse and / or include any of the above, ”he adds.
Flu and COVID-19: What you need to know about virus testing and spread
All of the similarities between flu and COVID-19 symptoms may make you wonder why it is important to know what illness you have. Although you should stay home from work or school, isolate yourself as much as possible and practice social distancing and wearing a mask if you experience any of the above symptoms (you really don’t want to pass the disease on). COVID or the flu to others) is important to keep in mind that COVID is exceptionally transmissible, even more so than the flu – and even when a person is asymptomatic and feeling well.
“While the virus that causes COVID-19 and influenza viruses are believed to spread in a similar fashion, the virus that causes COVID-19 is generally more contagious than influenza viruses,” says Jennifer Caudle, DO, Family doctor. “In addition, COVID-19 has been observed to have more super-spread events than the flu. This means that the virus that causes COVID-19 can spread quickly and easily to many people and cause continued spread. among people over time. “
And that’s where the COVID test comes in. “Because some of the symptoms of the flu, COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses are similar, the difference between them cannot be made on the basis of symptoms alone, according to the CDC,” Dr. Caudle explains. “Tests are needed to tell what the disease is and to confirm a diagnosis. “
Not only that, but it is possible to be infected with both the flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 at the same time, which makes all of the overlapping symptoms even more confusing. “For signs of flu-like symptoms, it’s best to get tested for both the flu and COVID-19 to determine accordingly and understand the next steps needed to better recover,” says Dr. Caudle.
There are a number of factors that could affect the results of a flu or COVID-19 test, including the type of test and when during the illness you take it, but getting tested and getting a feel for the virus that is making you sick can help you avoid passing it on to other people. As Dr. Cutler points out, rapid tests can be very helpful, but have limitations due to the higher rates of false positives and false negatives. If possible, get a COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, as it is more reliable and accurate, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and can detect the virus in your body over a longer period of time.
And in case you need another reason to get tested and do all you can to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19, it can ultimately lead to fewer variants of the virus, like the Alpha, Beta, and Delta strains. that caused so much. a lot of worry over the past few months.
“Replication of the COVID virus inside any infected person could give rise to such variants,” says Dr. Cutler. “This fact provides an additional imperative for each eligible person to be vaccinated against COVID. And while these newer variants may differ somewhat in terms of transmissibility and severity, distinguishing them from older variants can only be done through long and detailed genetic analysis. “
How to prepare for the next flu season
Thanks to a number of factors, including mask wear and social distancing, the last flu season has been remarkably soft. But given all that has changed in terms of easing public health measures and people regularly venturing out of their homes again, what does the next flu season look like?
“The obvious prediction is that the incidence of infections [other than COVID-19]will increase, ”says Dr. Cutler. “After a worldwide drop in influenza cases and the lowest rate ever recorded in the United States during the pandemic, we should all expect to see more flu over the coming fall and winter. It will therefore be very important for everyone to get the flu shot. “
Ultimately, no matter what type of virus (or other pathogen) has made you sick, your best bet is to do what you can to stop your disease from spreading to other people.
“Ultimately, the diseases are similar enough that, especially for the coming year, patients suspected of being ill with one of them have to take care of themselves, stay tuned. home and take precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the disease to family, friends and colleagues, ”says Dr. Smith.“ Fortunately, wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding public spaces all work well to prevent the spread of the two diseases. “