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Comparing Flu & COVID-19

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  • Written By: Sally Dowling, MD
Comparing Flu & COVID-19

by Sally Dowling, MD
Vice President of Medical Affairs at Atlantic General Hospital

With the flu season upon us, many people are wondering how to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. The infections have many similarities and some differences. Both infections are caused by viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. The flu is caused by one of several influenza viruses. COVID-19 is more easily spread, can cause more serious illness, and has both a longer time that illness can start after exposure and a longer duration of being contagious.

Both infections can cause fever, chills, achiness, headaches, fatigue, and shortness of breath, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and vomiting /diarrhea. COVID-19 can cause a change or loss of taste and smell, which the flu does not.

People exposed to the flu can become ill 1 to 4 days after exposure. They can be contagious starting 1 day prior to the onset of their symptoms, until 7 days after their symptoms begin. People exposed to COVID-19 can become ill 2 to 14 days after exposure. They can be contagious starting 2 days prior to the onset of their symptoms, until 10 days after their symptoms begin.

Both the flu and COVID-19 are spread through respiratory droplets and may be spread by direct physical contact with other people or with surfaces that have the virus living on them.

Older adults, people with underlying health conditions and pregnant women are at increased risk for severe illness and complications from both infections. Young children are at a higher risk of complications from the flu, while school aged children are at a higher risk for a rare complication of COVID-19 called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).

Both infections can lead to many severe complications and death.

Treatment for both influenza and COVID-19 is mainly based on treating the symptoms with rest, hydration, and acetaminophen for fever management. Patients at higher risk or with more severe symptoms from influenza can be treated with antiviral medication, which shortens the duration and severity of the symptoms. Patients who have more severe illness, with either infection, may require hospitalization. COVID-19 patients who become this ill may be treated with Remdesivir and/or dexamethasone. There is no prescription medication approved to treat patients with COVID-19 who are not ill enough to require hospitalization.

One of the most important differences between the flu and COVID-19 is that there are vaccines to prevent and lessen illness from the flu, but there is no current vaccine available to prevent COVID-19. The flu vaccine is widely available at medical offices, community flu vaccine clinics and pharmacies. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months receive an influenza vaccine every year.

The most important similarity between the two infections is that it is best to prevent infection than to treat it after it occurs. Staying home as much as possible at all times and definitely if you have any symptoms of illness, wearing masks at all times when around others, maintaining a distance of 6 feet from other people, washing/sanitizing your hands frequently and keeping your hands away from your face are the best methods of preventing you from contracting either infection!