COVID-19 and Flu: Similarities, Differences, and How to Protect Yourself

Last updated: October 2020

As the coronavirus and flu season collide, this upcoming fall and winter will be like none the world has ever seen. Here in the United States, it is important to know how to protect yourself from both of these viruses, which we can get at the same time. Read on to see how these viruses are similar, how they are different, and what those of us who have chronic or underlying conditions need to look out for this season.

How are COVID-19 and the flu similar?

Coronavirus and the flu have many similarities in how they are spread and the symptoms that they cause. Both viruses are spread when people are close to each other, mainly through droplets that form when people cough, sneeze or talk. Both viruses can also be spread before an infected person starts to show symptoms. This is why masks are so effective at reducing spread.1

Coronavirus and flu can also be spread when an infected person’s droplets land on surfaces that another person touches, such as a doorknob or dining table. Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds to reduce the risk of getting any of these droplets near or on your face. You might also want to hold off on shaking any hands for a while.2

As the season moves forward, it will be a common challenge to figure out whether common symptoms are from COVID-19 (the illness caused by coronavirus), flu, or the common cold. Both COVID-19 and the flu can result in mild or severe illness and may cause 1 or more of the symptoms below:1-4

Symptom TableSymptomCOVID-19FluCommon coldFeverYesYesRarelyCoughYesYesSometimesChills, body achesYesYesRarelyHeadacheYesYesRarelySudden symptomsNoYesNoLoss of taste or smellYesNoNoRunny noseYesYesYesDifficulty breathingYesYesNoFatigueYesYesSometimesIf you have any of the symptoms in the above chart, talk to your doctor. They may recommend that you quarantine yourself (stay home and reduce contact with other people) until you have a confirmed diagnosis. If you have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, call your doctor right away. Another similarity between coronavirus and the flu is that both of these viruses can make people with pre-existing conditions seriously ill or worsen the existing condition itself. In this way, COVID-19 can be significantly more dangerous than the flu. These serious illnesses, which some doctors call complications, include:1,2PneumoniaRespiratory failureHeart attack or strokeOrgan failureInflammation of the heart and brainCOVID-19 has also been found to cause blood clots in the brain and heart, as well as a dangerous inflammatory syndrome in children called MIS-C. Talk to your doctor to see if you or any of your family members have a pre-existing condition that puts you at higher risk for these complications.1How are COVID-19 and the flu different?Right now, the biggest difference between these viruses is that immunization is available for the flu. If you are reading this and still have not scheduled your flu shot, stop what you are doing and check this off your to-do list! Scientists around the world are working hard to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, but it is not likely to become available in 2020. Also, research shows COVID-19 is deadlier than the flu. While some treatments for flu are available, the medical community is still learning about how to treat COVID-19. As with a coronavirus vaccine, many studies are being done to learn which treatments are safe and work well.1,2Why this year’s flu shot is importantPublic health experts have been warning of a “twindemic,” which means that the healthcare system could be overwhelmed by the expected second wave of COVID-19 (due to more time spent indoors instead of outside) and flu season. If this happens, healthcare can be affected across the board, similar to what we saw at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Getting a flu shot not only reduces your risk of serious illness, but it also helps keep doctor’s offices open throughout your community so they can take care of other illnesses and emergencies. When in doubt, call your doctorSince both the flu and COVID-19 can cause severe complications in people with underlying conditions, it is good to check in with your doctor about 3 things:Your risk levelHow to protect yourselfWhat to do if you have been exposed to either virus or start to feel sickThis will be a challenging fall and winter for all of us, but having the right information and knowing if you are at risk are the best ways to protect yourself.

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