COVID-19 vs. flu: Get help to spot the differences

This year’s flu season may feel a bit different, in the midst of a pandemic. Waking up with a scratchy throat or a fever may have you wondering whether it’s the flu — or this year, COVID-19. Both are respiratory viruses producing similar symptoms, but it’s important to be able to help detect some of the differences.


Understanding the similarities and differences may help you determine which virus you’re dealing with, but you should contact your doctor to help ensure an accurate diagnosis. 

Similarities of COVID-19 and flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both the flu and COVID-19 may include these symptoms:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (though this is more common in children than adults)

Additionally, both viruses may:

  • Spread through droplets released when talking, sneezing or coughing
  • Lead to serious complications for those 65 and older, those with chronic conditions and pregnant women
  • Take one or more days for symptoms to appear, after a person is infected

Different symptoms with COVID-19

“Influenza and COVID-19 share many of the same symptoms. One of the most distinct characteristics that occur with COVID-19 is the sudden loss of taste and smell,” said Dr. Donna O’Shea, medical director for UCS Population Health. “It also may take longer to develop symptoms when you have COVID-19 versus the flu. With flu, symptoms typically develop within four days of infection. With COVID-19, symptoms may appear as late as 14 days after infection. People with COVID-19 may also be contagious and at risk for spreading the virus longer.”

Help protect yourself from flu and COVID-19

While it’s possible to contract the flu all year round, flu viruses are most common in the fall and winter. And with the pandemic still in full force, it may be more important than ever to protect against both viruses.

Dr. O’Shea and Dr. Jennifer Brueckner, leader of the national flu core team for UnitedHealthcare, share five tips to help avoid getting influenza — and COVID-19.

  1. Consider getting your flu shot as soon as possible this fall. You can find a UnitedHealthcare vaccination location here.
  2. Wear a face covering at indoor public places or when you’re within six feet of others and avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth.
  3. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, if soap and water aren’t available.
  4. Stay home and self-isolate, if you’re feeling symptoms.
  5. Support your overall health by eating healthier, getting adequate sleep and managing your stress levels.

“If you think you have symptoms of the flu or COVID-19, call your doctor,” Dr. O’Shea said. “Most employers and health plans offer 24-hour telehealth providers who can also help you determine the next step that is right for you.”

Taking these precautions is an important step to help prevent the spread of these highly contagious viruses. For more information about COVID-19 vs. the flu, click here.