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How to Know If It's the Flu or COVID-19

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cartoon-style flu and COVID-19 virus bugs; Coronavirus vs. Flu - UnityPoint Health

While COVID-19 and the flu are very different viruses – they certainly seem to act similarly. Dr. Stephen Rinderknecht, chair of the immunization committee for UnityPoint Health, helps break down coronavirus symptoms vs flu symptoms along with other similarities and differences between the two viruses as we head into flu season.

Flu vs. Coronavirus: Similarities

Both are Viruses 

When very basically considering the flu vs coronavirus, it’s first best to understand they are both viruses, not bacteria. Bacteria are very small organisms composed of a single cell, while a virus is even smaller. Infections from viruses are more common, especially during the fall and winter. Viruses can’t be treated by antibiotics – those only help treat bacterial infections.

Spread Occurs in 3 Ways

  • Inhalation. Breathing in very small, fine particles containing the virus. An example of this is breathing in particles that linger in the air after an infected person was talking loudly or singing.
  • Deposition. The virus is carried by exhaled droplets that land directly onto exposed mucous membranes — like the nose or mouth. An example of this is when someone sneezes or coughs on you.
  • Touching. When you touch your own nose or mouth (mucous membranes) with fingers after directly touching germs (like a dirty tissue) or other germ-filled surfaces (door handles, shared toys etc.).

Similar Prevention Tactics

“Fortunately, the best measures we have for decreasing the spread of COVID-19 also work on influenza, since they’re both spread the same way. Make sure you do your part by following CDC masking guidelines, continuing frequent hand washing and staying home when you’re sick.

Vaccines are Available

You can help prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death of both viruses by getting vaccinated. You can also get both the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine in the same doctor’s visit. Even if you’ve had COVID-19 or the flu in the past, it’s still a good idea to get vaccinated against the viruses.

Coronavirus Symptoms & Flu Symptoms are Similar

What are Flu Symptoms?

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

What are COVID-19 Symptoms?

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting/nausea and diarrhea
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath of difficulty breathing


Flu vs. COVID-19: Differences

COVID-19 Includes Key Symptoms

While the lists of symptoms are similar, there are a couple on the COVID-19 symptom list that aren’t on the flu list. Those include shortness of breath/difficulty breathing and new loss of taste or smell. However, Dr. Rinderknecht notes that the list of symptoms associated with COVID-19 is changing as we gain more experience with the virus. If you have any of the symptoms on either of these lists, talk with your provider to help determine if testing is needed.

Coronavirus Can Cause More Deaths

COVID-19 has proven to be much more deadly than influenza. In a typical influenza season, 30-40 thousand deaths are attributed to the virus. We have lost over 630,000 people from COVID-19 since the start of this pandemic.

Flu Onset is Faster

It’s important to pay attention to when and how you feel symptoms in your body.

“Typically, influenza starts very abruptly with fever and cough. People can often tell me not just the day, but the hour they became ill. The symptoms of COVID-19 seem to come on more gradually, and the non-respiratory symptoms (fatigue, aches, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of smell/taste etc.) can be the first to show up,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Doctor’s Advice

Simple — get vaccinated.

“With the unpredictability of COVID-19 circulating at the same time as the flu, the best measure we can take is to protect ourselves by getting the COVID-19 and flu vaccines,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Science also suggests there is a possibility you could get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

“We know that a person can be infected by more than one respiratory virus at the same time (co-infection). When co-infection has occurred with other respiratory viruses, it often results in a more severe and potentially deadly disease,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Call your clinic to schedule your vaccines, today.