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The Flu vs COVID: Protect Your Health by Knowing the Differences

Both the seasonal flu and COVID-19 are contagious respiratory illnesses that develop as a result of two different viral infections: the influenza virus and the coronavirus. Both are spread through respiratory droplets (from sneezing, coughing, talking closely, or touching shared surfaces) and present with similar symptoms. 

But upon closer comparison, the flu and COVID-19 affect people differently, which is further reflected in complications and their treatment. According to the CDC, COVID-19 is more contagious and more likely to cause serious illness, hospitalizations, and death. 

Keep in mind that the flu has been around for hundreds of years, so doctors know how to treat and prevent it. The more scientists learn about the coronavirus, the better future prevention and treatment methods will be, including access to reliable testing and effective vaccines. 

The Difference Between COVID-19 Symptoms and Flu Symptoms 

While symptoms are largely the same, COVID-19 has a longer incubation period. This means, compared to the flu, people infected with coronavirus take longer to show symptoms and remain contagious for a longer period. 

People with the flu experience symptoms 1 to 4 days after infection, whereas people with COVID-19 show symptoms anywhere from 2 to 14 days following infection. While the flu is contagious for a day before symptoms appear, the coronavirus is spread starting two days before a patient exhibits symptoms and remains contagious for at least 10 days after symptom onset. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu: 

  • Fever or chills 
  • Cough 
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing 
  • Fatigue 
  • Sore throat 
  • Runny or stuffy nose 
  • Muscle or body aches 
  • Headache 
  • Nausea or vomiting 

Loss of taste or smell is a compelling sign of COVID-19, but a rare flu-related side-effect of a stuffy nose. Gastrointestinal issues also occur more commonly in people with COVID-19 or in children with the flu. The only sure way to know the difference between the flu and COVID-19 is to get tested. 

Complications and Treatments in COVID-19 vs the Flu 

Complications from COVID-19 are generally more severe than the flu, making COVID-19 a more deadly disease. In fact, the CDC reported over 630,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States last year versus only 22,000 flu-related deaths during the 2019-2020 season. 

Severe illnesses resulting in lung injury occur more frequently with COVID-19, and complications like blood clots and pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome are associated with coronavirus and not influenza. In addition, some people experience “long COVID” in which some symptoms do not retreat (unlike the flu, in which full recovery is typical in a matter of weeks). 

While the flu can be treated with a number of antiviral medications, currently, only one antiviral drug is approved to treat the coronavirus. As researchers focus their efforts, the future will see more medications and preventative treatments for reducing the symptoms and severity of COVID-19. 

Trends for This Season’s Flu Strain vs the Omicron Variant 

Each winter season gives way to new strains of the flu. With an advanced understanding of data trends, scientists are able to predict the top three or four flu strains with a large degree of accuracy. A flu vaccine developed to match the season’s circulating strain is extremely effective. 

As the novel coronavirus evolves, newer variants similarly tempt to evade current vaccines. Take the Omicron variant, which is considerably more contagious than the original strain: while COVID-19 vaccines offer some protection, Omicron is still infectious but results in less severe symptoms. 

The more people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the less capacity it has to mutate and the slower the virus can spread. Like the flu, future trends relating to the prevention of COVID-19 will use data to predict the dominant variant. 

The Importance of Getting Both the Flu Shot and the COVID Vaccine 

It is possible to be infected by both the flu virus and the coronavirus at the same time. Importantly, the flu shot does not impact the protection of COVID-19 vaccination and vice versa. Therefore, both the flu shot and the COVID vaccine are critical tools to keep you safe and your immune system strong. 

Even if you are vaccinated, you still are at risk of getting sick. A test will confirm your status and allow you to quarantine for the appropriate incubation period. And because both influenza and coronaviruses are contagious, your best bet to stop the spread is to get vaccinated and stay home if you feel any symptoms related to flu or COVID-19. 

Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members. 

References 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862331/ 
  1. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm 
  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-vs-flu/art-20490339 
  1. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-disease-2019-vs-the-flu 
  1. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/vaccine-benefits.htm 
  1. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/index.html 

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