This winter, experts expect that both COVID-19 and the flu will be making people sick. To understand more about the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and the flu, follow this primer.
If you’re feeling unprepared to juggle the possibility of coming across both the flu and COVID-19 this winter, you’re not alone. It can be confusing to try to distinguish one virus from the other because their symptoms are often similar.
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, our healthcare professionals are experts at helping people prevent and manage viral illnesses, including COVID-19 and the flu. Here’s everything you need to know about comparing COVID-19 and the flu (influenza).
What Kind of Infections Are COVID-19 and the Flu?
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 illness and the influenza virus that causes the flu are both known as respiratory viruses. This means that they mainly enter the body through the upper respiratory tract (the nose and mouth) and can cause infection all the way through this tract, from the throat down to the lungs. Both COVID-19 and flu infections can also cause whole-body symptoms, such as fever, chills, or fatigue.
How Are COVID-19 and the Flu Spread?
Contagious respiratory infections like COVID-19 and the flu spread mostly through “droplets,” which means that tiny little viruses can hitch a ride into your respiratory tract whenever an infected person near you coughs or sneezes. They can also enter your body if you touch an infected surface and then touch your hands to your mouth or nose.
What Are the Symptoms of COVID-19 and the Flu?
When you have COVID-19 or the flu, it can be difficult to tell which virus has infected you. This is because the symptoms of both illnesses can be very similar.
Symptoms of COVID-19
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. People with COVID-19 can also experience muscle aches, body aches, headaches, loss of taste, loss of smell, sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. Some people with a positive COVID-19 test may have no symptoms at all. Other people who get really ill with COVID-19 can develop other conditions, such as pneumonia, blood clots, kidney injuries, liver injuries, and heart problems. Medical professionals have also noticed that some people who get COVID-19 develop a severe multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
Symptoms of the Flu
The most common symptoms of the flu (influenza) are fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, body aches, headaches, fatigue, runny nose, nasal congestion, vomiting, and diarrhea. When people become really ill with the flu, they can develop pneumonia, heart problems, brain inflammation, and kidney injuries.
Although many of the symptoms overlap between COVID-19 and the flu, experts note the following differences:
- COVID-19 illness can spread more easily than the flu, especially the Delta variant
- COVID-19 illness can cause more serious complications than the flu in some people
- COVID-19 illness can take a longer time than the flu to show symptoms if a person has become infected, and it can also persist for a longer time than the flu.
Because of the large range of symptoms and severity when it comes to both COVID-19 and the flu, it is a good idea to do your best to avoid getting either illness. Both illnesses can result in hospitalization and death. However, COVID-19 seems to be more aggressive than the flu when it comes to severe cases.
Who Is Most Vulnerable to COVID-19 and the Flu?
Anyone can catch COVID-19 or the flu, even if they have previously been vaccinated against either illness. However, people who have are unvaccinated are more vulnerable to catching these illnesses. Certain groups also tend to be more at risk of COVID-19 and the flu.
People Who Are Most at Risk of COVID-19
COVID-19 is more likely to cause severe sickness in people who are older than age 65 and in people with underlying medical conditions. Healthcare providers and other essential workers, who may have more cumulative exposure to COVID-19 on a daily basis, may also be more vulnerable to getting sick.
People Who Are Most at Risk of the Flu
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the people who are most vulnerable to getting the flu are the very young (children younger than age 5, and especially younger than age 2), people older than age 65, and people with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma or heart disease. People who deal with the public, such as healthcare workers, may also be more at risk of contracting the flu because they may be coming into contact more frequently with contagious patients.
How Are COVID-19 and the Flu Diagnosed?
It can be very difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu just by getting an in-person check-up. A healthcare provider will not be able to tell which illness you have simply from an interview and physical exam. The only way to find out which illness you are experiencing (or if you may be harboring a different virus entirely) is by getting tested. Both COVID-19 and the flu can be detected using a nasal swab or mouth swab test. These types of tests can tell you if you are currently infected with the SARS-CoV-2 or influenza virus. Other types of tests can detect whether you have had an illness in the past.
If you have had a positive test for either COVID-19 or the flu, your healthcare provider will give you specific instructions about what to do. You may be counseled to stay at home for a specific time period in order to prevent spreading the virus. A negative test does not necessarily mean that you don’t have either virus for certain—sometimes you can have a “false negative” test because of the timing of the test, or the collection method.
How Are COVID-19 and the Flu Treated?
When it comes to treating COVID-19 and the flu, the good news is that the grand majority of people will be able to stay at home and recover on their own without any specific medical care, other than rest and comfort measures. However, if your medical provider does recommend treatment, a few medications have been shown to be beneficial.
If a person who is not hospitalized is ill with COVID-19, and at risk of getting very sick, a therapy known as monoclonal antibodies may be helpful. People who are hospitalized and very sick with COVID-19 may need oxygen, ventilation, steroids, and other specialized medications for support. A new antiviral medication, known as molnupiravir, may also be used in the future to help with COVID-19 infections.
Treating the Flu
Antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, can help specifically target the flu virus. These medicines can be prescribed to people outside of the hospital who are sick with the flu, and they can also be used in the hospital. For people who are very sick with the flu and hospitalized, oxygen, ventilation, and other medications may be needed to support their recovery.
How Can COVID-19 and the Flu Be Prevented?
Both COVID-19 and the flu can be prevented in two main ways. The most important way of preventing either illness is getting vaccinated. Vaccines are currently approved and available to fight off both diseases, and medical providers recommend that people who are eligible to get both shots in order to have the best form of protection this season. Vaccines are safe and effective ways of reducing your odds of getting COVID-19 and the flu.
The second method of preventing a respiratory illness like COVID-19 or the flu is practicing good respiratory hygiene. This means staying home if you’re sick, avoiding other people who are sick, washing your hands frequently with soap and water, avoiding touching your face, and wearing a mask if you’re in a crowded area.
What to Do If You’re Feeling Sick
If you’re feeling ill, it can be nearly impossible to tell what virus is causing your symptoms—SARS-CoV-2 or influenza. At your first sign of symptoms, it’s important to start isolating yourself so that you can reduce the chance that you will spread your sickness to others.
Whether it’s COVID-19 or the flu, rest, hydration, and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help you with symptoms. Contact your medical provider so that you can learn what to do next—sometimes, they may advise that you continue resting at home. Other times, they may advise that you come into the clinic for an evaluation and to get tested.
If you are having severe symptoms—such as lightheadedness, high fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, or otherwise, your medical provider may recommend that you get care at an urgent care or emergency department.
How Lompoc Valley Medical Center Can Help
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we help patients from all walks of life manage their respiratory symptoms. We are committed to helping you feel better as soon as possible. To schedule an appointment, or to get connected with a primary care provider, contact us today.