The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. At the same time, the Northern hemisphere marks the beginning of the flu season.
But how do you tell these two diseases apart? Which is more dangerous? Can you protect yourself against COVID-19 and the flu at the same time? There are a lot of questions about the novel coronavirus, and we’ll try to answer some of them.
The seasonal flu and the new coronavirus have similar symptoms, but there are some significant differences between them. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Both COVID-19 and influenza (the flu) are respiratory infections that share some common symptoms. However, they’re caused by entirely different viruses.
COVID-19 is caused by a new kind of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that have crown-like spikes (hence the name). They mostly affect animals, but seven coronaviruses have been known to cause illness in humans.
Fortunately, four of these seven viruses only cause mild symptoms so they’re not considered dangerous. The remaining three are:
The flu is caused by four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C, and D. Most cases of seasonal flu are caused by types A and B, whereas influenza C causes mild symptoms and influenza D only affects animals. Influenza viruses are not coronaviruses.
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Influenza and COVID-19 share many symptoms so it’s not always easy to tell them apart without a test. However, people who have COVID-19 are more likely to lose their sense of smell and/or taste. Also, people with COVID-19 tend to show symptoms about 5 days after being infected whereas flu patients typically have their first symptoms sooner, sometimes just one day after catching the virus.
People who have COVID-19 have a higher risk of complications than people with the flu. In addition to this, coronavirus infections are more likely to cause blood clots.
Another reason why COVID-19 is more dangerous is the risk of long-term complications known as “long COVID”. These can occur even if the infection didn’t cause severe symptoms.
Both diseases are particularly dangerous for older people and people with chronic health conditions, as well as during pregnancy. But there’s a difference in the way these infections affect children. The flu can make babies and young children very ill. On the other hand, severe COVID-19 cases among children are rare.
The flu has been around for a very long time, so scientists know a lot about influenza viruses. This is why they could develop several antiviral drugs that are specifically prescribed to patients with a high risk of influenza complications. There are four FDA-approved antiviral medications for the flu:
On the other hand, SARS-CoV-2 has only been around since 2019, so researchers are still learning about it and working on effective drugs. As of now, only one antiviral drug called remdesivir has been approved to treat COVID-19.
Both infections spread in a similar way and can affect vital organs like the lungs and the heart. The main symptoms are also quite similar:
It can be hard to tell if someone has COVID-19 or the flu just by looking at their symptoms. This is why people have to be tested.
The complications of influenza and COVID-19 are similar, too. They include:
Influenza and COVID-19 spread in similar ways, mostly via water droplets that spread in the air when infected people talk, sneeze, or cough. This is why the precautions for coronavirus and the flu are very similar, too:
You can get the flu at any time of the year, even when flu season ends.
However, influenza cases spike when the air outside becomes colder and drier, and then drop again when temperatures and humidity rise. In the Northern hemisphere, the flu season usually falls between October and April. In the Southern hemisphere, it typically falls between April and October.
But why is flu season usually in winter? Cold temperatures make us spend more time indoors so you’re more likely to breathe “someone else’s” air and inhale any viruses that could be there.
Also, viruses tend to survive better in dry air — and winter air is typically dry.
The exact duration of the flu season depends on the weather and the exact strains of the flu virus that circulate in any given year. However, the flu season typically ends somewhere around mid-spring.
While the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, they’re two distinct diseases. This is why each one requires a different vaccine.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that you need to schedule two appointments with your doctor. Data shows that it’s safe to get both vaccines on the same day. The vaccines won’t interact in harmful ways.
The best time to get a flu vaccine is at least two weeks before the flu season begins because it takes some time for your body to build immunity against influenza. However, you can get vaccinated anytime during the flu season — just remember that the vaccine doesn’t provide you with instant protection. And if you need to get your COVID shot at the same time, go for it!
The more snug your mask is, the more protection it offers. Of course, no face covering can filter out every single virus particle, but real-world data shows that masks do help reduce the transmission of respiratory viruses. So it’s a good idea to wear a mask indoors or in crowded places even if your local legislation doesn’t require it.
Most people who develop flu-like symptoms will get well within a week or two. If you’re not in a high-risk group, you can stay home, ease your flu symptoms with over-the-counter remedies, and do your best to avoid infecting other people.
However, some people should call their doctor early in their illness because they’re at a higher risk of developing complications. You belong to a higher-risk group if you:
Young children also have a higher risk of flu complications.
If a young family member has flu-like symptoms, call their pediatrician as soon as possible.
You should also seek immediate medical attention if you develop severe symptoms that include:
Remember that this list is NOT exhaustive. Seek medical attention if you develop any concerning symptoms.
COVID-19 and influenza have similar symptoms but different causes and treatment options. In addition to this, COVID-19 complications are more frequent and dangerous.
Because both diseases spread in a similar way, you can reduce your risk of both COVID-19 and the flu by following the same precautions: washing your hands, not touching your face, avoiding crowds, wearing a mask, and getting vaccinated (you can even get both vaccines on the same day).
While most cases of COVID-19 and influenza can be treated at home, it’s important to stay in touch with your doctor if you’re in a higher-risk group and seek immediate help if you develop severe symptoms.