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

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

woman blowing her nose in bed

Understanding the similarities and differences may help you determine which virus you’re dealing with, but you should contact your health care provider to help ensure an accurate diagnosis. If you’re experiencing difficulty breathing or staying hydrated, you may want to seek care immediately.

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 who are unvaccinated, 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 occurs with COVID-19 is the sudden loss of taste and smell, although it seems this is less common with the Delta variant of COVID-19,” 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 early as two days and as late as 14 days after infection. People with COVID-19 may also be contagious and at risk for spreading the virus up to 10 days after symptoms resolve.”

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 ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 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. 

Following CDC guidelines:

1.     Vaccines are your best protection. Consider getting your flu shot as soon as possible this fall. If you are 12 years and older, you might also consider getting a COVID-19 vaccine, if you haven’t already. The good news is, you can save yourself an appointment and get both vaccines at the same time.

2.     Masking in indoor public places to avoid the respiratory droplets that carry the flu and COVID-19.  Due to the severity of the disease, its complications and highly contagious nature of the Delta variant of COVID, the CDC is recommending masking even if you are fully vaccinated to help maximize your protection from the Delta variant, when in large crowds or around others who are not vaccinated. Masking may be even more critical for anyone not vaccinated against COVID-19.

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.

Because some of the symptoms of flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses are similar, the differences between them may not always be made based on symptoms alone. Testing may be needed to tell what the illness is and to help confirm a diagnosis. It is possible for people to be infected with both flu and the virus that causes COVID-19 at the same time and have symptoms of both influenza and COVID-19.

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