Flu vs. COVID-19: How to tell the difference

Cold & Flu

by Tresa McNeal, MD, FACP, SFHM

Oct 20, 2020

Information and guidance about COVID-19 care and vaccination continues to evolve. Please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest.

In a world where influenza and COVID-19 unfortunately coexist, deciphering symptoms of influenza (also known as the flu) vs. COVID-19 is one of the more common questions we face.

With very similar symptoms, how can we tell the difference? Let’s break down what we know about each virus.

Flu and COVID-19 similarities and differences

Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Occasionally nausea or diarrhea

COVID-19 symptoms may also include loss of taste or smell, which can be helpful in distinguishing between the two. However, keep in mind that not all patients with coronavirus experience loss of taste or smell. So, people with other symptoms common to both flu and COVID-19 without loss of taste or smell should not assume that they don’t have coronavirus.

Here’s the bottom line: the only way that we can tell the difference is by getting tested for both COVID-19 and the flu.

Outside of symptoms, there are some other notable differences between COVID-19 and influenza. COVID-19 is much more easily spread among people and while both viruses can cause serious illness, COVID-19 causes significantly more people to have severe illness requiring hospitalization and/or an ICU stay.

What to do if you have flu or COVID-19 symptoms

Here’s the bottom line: the only way that we can tell the difference is by getting tested for both COVID-19 and the flu. This makes it especially important to monitor ourselves and our children for symptoms of illness.

If you or your child has any symptoms of COVID-19 or the flu, stay home. Avoid going to work or school and running errands in the community. If you experience increasing shortness of breath, chest pain or other life-threatening symptoms, call 911.

If your symptoms are mild, we recommend you talk to your primary care physician or find one today via MyBSWHealth.

Testing can help your doctor advise you on next steps for treatment and recovery. While you are at home waiting to get tested or receive results, here are some things you can do in the meantime to care for yourself and manage mild symptoms. The same applies if you are caring for a sick family member at home.

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink fluids.
  • Control fever by taking acetaminophen every 4-6 hours as needed. Talk to your doctor about any specific medication or dosage concerns.

How to lower your risk of illness

It is important to remember that while there is no easy way of determining if an illness is the flu or COVID-19 without a test, we do have other ways of taking control of our risk and protecting our loved ones. That is to get both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines (and boosters) and be vigilant about hand hygiene.

This year is especially the time to get a flu vaccine. In addition to protecting yourself, getting the vaccine also helps protect those around you with impaired immune systems such as infants, the elderly and others with immunocompromising conditions. The more people in a community who get a vaccine, the better we can protect those high-risk groups from getting sick and facing life-threatening complications.

Keep in mind that some people without symptoms at the time of being tested will never have symptoms and some will possibly develop symptoms within the next few days.

So, just because you feel healthy doesn’t mean you can’t still spread the virus to your friends, family, coworkers and communities. For the sake of those around us, we should each be a good neighbor, get our vaccines and remain conscious of good hand hygiene.

If you or a family member is experiencing symptoms of the flu or COVID-19, we can help. Find a doctor near you, or schedule an eVisit or video visit today.

About the Author

Tresa McNeal, MD, FACP, SFHM, is an internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center — Temple.

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