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Have you started to develop flu-like symptoms and are wondering, “do I have COVID-19, or do I have the flu?”

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between COVID-19 and flu by symptoms alone, and especially difficult to do so in the early stages of either illness.

If you feel sick, the responsible thing to do is to go home, self-quarantine, and talk to a healthcare provider. They can help you determine whether you have one of these viral infections and provide guidance on the next steps related to quarantine, testing, treatment, and when it is safe to return to work or school.

With that in mind, here is what you need to know about the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19.

Things to Know About the Flu

  • Your symptoms will usually appear 2–4 days after infection.
  • You can remain contagious up to seven days.
  • You can get prescription antiviral drugs specifically made to treat the flu.
  • You can get safe and effective vaccines every year for seasonal flu viruses.
  • The typical death rate of a severe seasonal flu outbreak is 0.1%.
  • If you get the flu, you’ll likely recover completely within a week or two.
  • The risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu compared to COVID-19.

Things to Know About COVID-19

  • Your symptoms will usually appear 5–7 days after exposure.
  • You’ll remain contagious for at least 10 days after contracting the virus.
  • COVID-19 is more contagious in certain populations; gatherings among these populations can lead to “super-spreader” events.
  • You cannot currently get specific medications to treat COVID-19.
  • A COVID-19 vaccine is now available and being rolled out to health care workers and nursing home staffers.
  • The current estimated death rate for all ages is 1%, 10x higher than severe flu. However, studies suggest that the mortality rate may be greater than 10% in more vulnerable populations including elderly patients and those with certain pre-existing medical conditions.
  • Many patients report a loss of taste or smell.
  • If infected, you may have a higher risk of developing blood clots in the lungs, brain, heart, or legs.
  • Many people with COVID report periods of illness lasting longer than a week or two.
  • Many patients report the persistence of symptoms such as weakness and shortness of breath for weeks or months after recovery.

What the Flu and COVID-19 Have in Common

  • You’ll be contagious for at least 1 day before symptoms start.
  • You cannot be treated with antibiotics because they are caused by viruses instead of bacteria.
  • The disease is usually spread person-to-person (droplets from coughing, sneezing, or speaking.)
  • Your general symptoms may include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose or congestion, muscle or body aches, headache, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Both viruses can cause severe complications including pneumonia, respiratory failure, cardiac injury, stroke, sepsis, kidney failure, etc.
  • Elderly patients, infants, pregnant women, and individuals with certain medical conditions may face a greater risk of severe illness or complications.
  • The risk of complications for older adults, people with certain underlying medical conditions, and pregnant people are higher for both COVID-19 and flu.

Remember, the flu is not benign and kills people every year. It would still be advisable to take steps to avoid catching it, even if COVID was not a global health crisis.

The most important thing to do for preventing both of these viruses is to follow the same basic public health principles you’re already using for COVID-19. That means masking, social distancing, hand washing, etc.

We also recommend the flu vaccination for anyone without an absolute contraindication. Vaccination will not only help to reduce the risk of a dual pandemic, but will also reduce the strain on the healthcare system to free up more advanced inpatient care for patients who require it.

By maintaining vigilance with these precautions, we can reduce the risk of contracting and spreading either of the viruses.

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CDC (2020a) 2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm (Accessed: 20 September 2020).

CDC (2020b) Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs covid19.htm (Accessed: 20 September 2020).

CDC (2020c) Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work?, CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/vaccineeffect.htm (Accessed: 20 September 2020).

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