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 Person to Person by Respiratory Droplets

Respiratory droplets come out of the nose and mouth while coughing, sneezing or talking. That’s why it’s important to remain physically distant from others by standing at least six feet apart. It’s hard for droplets to reach you, if you’re standing far enough away from an infected person.

Mainly Spread by Direct Contact

While you can pick up viruses from surfaces – both the flu and COVID-19 are thought to be spread mainly by being in prolonged contact (more than 15 minutes) with an infected person.

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 wearing cloth face coverings, social distancing and continuing frequent hand washing. Also, stay home when you can. There’s proof this works. In late March 2020, when these measures were first taken, it caused an abrupt stop to flu season,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

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.

COVID-19 is Unknown

The major difference is that the virus causing COVID-19 is totally new to humans, so very little basic knowledge of how it behaves is understood. The influenza virus is very well understood, as it’s been around for a long time.

Coronavirus Can Cause More Deaths

When considering the coronavirus vs flu death rates, it’s important to note that scientists are still learning exactly how deadly COVID-19 is to people. The current estimates suggest a 3 percent mortality rate in the Unites States, meaning 3 percent of the people who get the virus will die from it. It's difficult to know how accurate that number is because some deaths and some cases may go uncounted. The mortality rate for the flu is about 0.1 percent.

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.

Flu Has a Vaccine

Some vaccines are virtually 100 percent effective at preventing disease. For example, two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine are about 97 percent effective at preventing measles. But – how effective is the flu shot? While the flu vaccine isn’t as effective as some, it is still important for your health.

“Efficacy can vary from about 25 percent to 75 percent, but the 60 percent range is typical. We won’t know how effective this season’s flu shot is until after the season is over. Even when the flu vaccine doesn’t totally prevent influenza, the vaccine usually causes the disease to be less severe,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Doctor’s Advice

Simple – get the flu shot.

“With the unpredictability of COVID-19 circulating at the same time as the flu, the best measure we can take is to do everything we can to decrease the burden of influenza, including getting the flu vaccine,” 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 UnityPoint Clinic today to find out the flu shot options near you.