I don’t feel too well … could it be COVID-19 or the flu?
Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, meaning they affect your lungs and breathing, and can be spread to others. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.
Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins, explains how COVID-19 and the flu are similar and how they are different.
Similarities of COVID-19 and the Flu
Both illnesses can cause fever, cough, body aches, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, especially in children.
Both can result in pneumonia.
Both COVID-19 and the flu can be asymptomatic, mild, severe or even fatal.
How it spreads
Both COVID-19 and the flu spread in similar ways. Droplets or smaller virus particles from a sick person can transmit the virus to other people nearby. The smallest particles may linger in the air, and another person can inhale them and become infected.
People can also touch a surface with either virus on it, and they then can transfer the germs to themselves by touching their face.
People infected with the coronavirus or the flu may not realize they are sick for several days; and during that time, they can unknowingly spread the disease to others before they even feel sick.
In most cases, serious disease and death due to COVID-19 or the flu can be prevented by vaccines. In addition, mask-wearing, frequent and thorough hand washing, coughing into the crook of your elbow, staying home when sick, and limiting contact with people who are infected are effective safety precautions. Physical distancing also limits the spread of COVID-19 and flu in communities.
Differences between COVID-19 and the flu:
COVID-19: Many people infected with the coronavirus do not feel sick or have only mild symptoms, but they can still transmit the coronavirus to other people. Most notable, COVID-19 can sometimes cause a person to suddenly lose their sense of smell (anosmia) or taste (ageusia).
Flu: The flu does not typically affect a person’s sense of smell or taste, but otherwise has many of the same symptoms of COVID-19. Rarely does an influenza strain cause people to lose their sense of taste or smell.
COVID-19: While different treatments may be used for COVID-19 and the flu, both are treated by addressing symptoms, such as reducing fever. Severe cases may require hospitalization and very ill patients may need a ventilator — a machine that helps them breathe. Monoclonal antibodies are one type of treatment for COVID-19, but this form of treatment must be initiated early in the course of the virus. Contact your doctor as soon as possible, after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, to see if you are eligible for monoclonal antibody treatment.
Flu: Oral antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, can address symptoms of the flu and sometimes shorten the duration of this illness.
COVID-19: The development of complications, including long-term damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other organs and a variety of long-lasting symptoms, is possible after a case of COVID-19.
Flu: Influenza complications can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscles (myositis, rhabdomyolysis), and multi-organ failure. Secondary bacterial infections, particularly pneumonia, can occur following a bout of influenza infection.
COVID-19 and Flu Season Precautions:
1. Get vaccinated for coronavirus ASAP.
2. Get a flu shot. For the 2021–22 flu season, the CDC, recommends that you get your flu shot in September or October. Ask your doctor if you should get a pneumonia shot, too.
3. Don’t forget the kids. It’s important to ensure your children (over 6 months old) get flu shots — and any other vaccines they need. Kids age 12 and up are eligible to receive one of the current COVID-19 vaccines.
4. Care for yourself and your family with good nutrition, plenty of rest, proper hydration, regular exercise and stress management. Most importantly, always stay home if you don’t feel well.
5. Continue protecting yourself and your loved ones from the coronavirus. Even if you are tired of following coronavirus precautions such as washing your hands frequently, cleaning and sanitizing, wearing a face mask and physically distancing, it’s especially important now to keep up the good work — and encourage your family to do the same.