Flu cases were way down during the 2020/21 season, partly because of mitigation measures to prevent COVID-19. But this year, schools are open, and many of us are returning to our workplaces in person. Experts are predicting a more severe flu season. At the same time, COVID-19 remains a significant threat this winter, even in the highly-vaccinated DMV region. But with many shared symptoms, distinguishing between these two respiratory viruses can be challenging. How can we tell if it’s COVID, the flu or something else? Testing remains the only sure way to confirm you have COVID. A call to your primary care provider is the best place to start.
COVID-19 and the Flu: What Are The Differences?
Both COVID-19 and the flu are contagious respiratory viruses, and they spread in many of the same ways. However, they’re caused by completely different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The influenza virus causes the flu. One of the main differences between the two is that the virus that causes COVID is a “novel” virus, meaning bodies had no immunity to the virus when it emerged at the end of 2019. Both COVID and the flu can be mild, severe or deadly. Both can also be asymptomatic (when an infected person has no symptoms). According to Johns Hopkins University, experts believe the mortality rate from COVID is significantly higher than most flu strains. The CDC reports that last year’s flu activity was “unusually low,” likely because of COVID mitigation measures. However, the medical community anticipates a more severe track for the current flu season now in its early weeks, so it’s essential for all of us to be on guard.
Do COVID-19 and the Flu Have the Same Symptoms?
As respiratory viruses, COVID-19 and the flu share many of the same symptoms. That’s why it can be so challenging to tell the difference and why testing is usually the best course of action. Common symptoms include:
- Fever and chills
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- Muscle pain/body aches
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Vomiting or diarrhea
However, one of the red-flag symptoms of COVID that is very rare in flu cases is a loss of taste or smell.
Do I Have COVID or a Cold?
The common cold is an infection of your nose and upper respiratory tract. Many viruses can cause colds, including rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and other coronaviruses (different from the SARS-CoV-2). Cold symptoms are usually (but not always) easier to distinguish from COVID-19 than the flu. The main common denominator is often a cough. A common cold is far less likely to cause muscle aches, fever. And if you have diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, you can be reasonably sure it’s not a common cold. Both colds and COVID share symptoms like sore throat and runny nose. We rarely see sneezing with COVID. However, if you’re running a fever, it’s a good policy to get a COVID test.
Do COVID and Seasonal Allergies Have Similar Symptoms?
Fortunately, most seasonal allergy sufferers are very familiar with their symptoms: coughing, itchy eyes and sometimes itching in the nose and mouth. Yes, seasonal allergy-related coughing can be embarrassing during a pandemic, and we might want to stand up and shout, “It’s just allergies!” Remember, you’re unlikely to have a fever with seasonal allergies. So in this case, fever is a red flag. Body aches, vomiting are also symptoms we don’t see with allergies. If you’re a seasonal allergy sufferer and have any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to get tested.
How Can I Prevent COVID, Flu and Other Viruses?
One of the reasons flu cases were so low last season was the many COVID mitigation measures we put in place in our communities. This winter, we can expect more activity and gatherings. But there are practical steps we can take to prevent both COVID and flu transmission. They include:
- Wear masks when indoors in public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.
- Wash hands regularly.
- Continue to practice physical distancing when possible.
- Stay home if you are sick.
- If exposed to COVID-19, the CDC recommends immediate testing for unvaccinated individuals and testing within 5 to 7 days for vaccinated people.
Your Primary Care Provider Is Your Partner In Preventing – and Treating – COVID and Flu Infections
With a potential double whammy of COVID and the flu this winter, navigating your wellness may be more challenging than most years. Comprehensive Primary Care is your resource for whatever symptoms you experience. If you have COVID symptoms, call our office. We will triage your case and recommend testing options. CPC offers both rapid flu and COVID tests in our offices for patient convenience. By getting tested, you gain the peace of mind of getting a diagnosis and solid advice on how to treat and mitigate symptoms. Let’s all do our part to stay vigilant for happy holidays and a healthy 2022.