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August 20, 2020
Flu VS. COVID-19: What You Need to Know

By Gennady Gelman, M.D., Family Medicine, Harrington Physician Services

With the current coronavirus pandemic and the annual flu season approaching, it’s important to be aware of what symptoms to look for that indicate you may have either flu or COVID-19, how the symptoms of the two viruses overlap and differ, and most importantly, how to best prevent becoming sick with either of them.

COVID-19 and flu are both contagious respiratory diseases, but they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, while the flu is caused by the influenza virus.

How to Tell If You Have Flu or COVID-19

COVID-19 and flu share many of the same symptoms, and those symptoms are also common to other illnesses. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult to tell if you’re suffering from flu, COVID-19, or something else without a test. It’s also possible for an individual to have both viruses at the same time, which could mean much more severe illness and a harder, longer road to recovery.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the symptoms that we currently know to be common to both COVID-19 and flu include:

One symptom that does seem to differ between COVID-19 and flu is a change or loss of the sense of taste or smell. This can happen if you are infected with COVID-19 but is not a typical symptom of flu. However, it’s still possible to have COVID-19 and not have this symptom.

The bottom line is that, given the large overlap of symptoms between COVID-19 and flu, the only way to tell for sure if your symptoms are caused by COVID-19, flu, or something else, is to be tested. Although, given the shortages in supplies locally and nationally, most patients will not need to be tested to be managed.

What To Do If You Think You May Have Flu or COVID-19

If you are suffering from the symptoms noted above you should see your primary care provider (PCP) or seek care at an urgent care center as soon as possible. Your provider will determine the best course of action depending on your particular symptoms and medical history.

It’s More Important Than Ever to Get Your Flu Shot

It’s always important to get your annual flu vaccine – influenza can be a serious illness. Last flu season, which was between October 2019 and April 2020, the CDC estimates that as many as 56 million Americans had flu and as many as 62,000 died due to it.

But this year it’s even more important, because by greatly reducing the chances that you’ll become ill from flu, getting the flu vaccine also greatly reduces the chances that you’ll experience the flu symptoms that can so easily be confused with COVID-19. Put those two things together, and getting your annual flu vaccine could save you from not only becoming sick with flu, but also the worry, time, and expense associated with multiple medical tests, medical care and time lost from work or school if you do get sick.

Beyond individual benefits, lessening the spread of flu during the pandemic brings important benefits for our overall healthcare system overall as well. If there are fewer people who become sick with flu-like and COVID-19-like symptoms it will also help to lessen the number of tests and amount of care that will need to be provided – a crucial factor at a time when medical resources may already be stretched thin.

When and Where to Get Your Flu Shot

Flu season typically begins sometime in October and begins to peaks during the winter months, beginning in December. This year, we are advising our patients to get the flu shot between late September and early October. Due to the complicating factors of COVID-19, it is expected that more influenza vaccines will be made available than usual.

You can obtain a flu shot at most of the PCP locations at Harrington HealthCare; call your PCP to arrange to get vaccinated there. If you don’t currently have a PCP, now is a great time to get one.

If you don’t have a PCP, you can obtain a vaccine at many of the local pharmacies, at public flu vaccine clinics hosted by local health departments, and at other locations. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website provides a helpful Vaccine Finder that you can use to locate flu vaccine providers and events in your area.