With fall upon us, you may be wondering about coronavirus vs seasonal flu. COVID-19 has been confirmed in the U.S. since January of 2020. While that might seem like a long time ago, it often takes years (or even decades) for scientists and health experts to understand a new virus. Thankfully the flu virus, which has been around for hundreds of years, is well known to doctors and researchers. So, what is the difference between coronavirus and the flu? Here are four facts from Stephen Rinderknecht, DO, UnityPoint Health, to set you straight about the flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Coronavirus Symptoms Start Gradually, Flu Symptoms Start Quickly
“Although the symptoms of both have significant overlap, their onset seems different,” Dr. Rinderknecht says. “Typically, influenza starts with abrupt fever and cough. People can often tell me not just the day, but the hour, they become ill. The symptoms of COVID-19 seem to come on more gradual with the non-respiratory symptoms (fatigue, headache, vomiting, diarrhea) often being the first to show up.”
2. You Can Be Infected with Both 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 occurs it often results in a more severe disease,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
It’s important to note, the flu vaccine will not help you avoid infection with COVID-19. However, flu shots will help you avoid being infected at the same time with both respiratory illnesses, which could be miserable and/or devastating.
3. COVID-19 Preventive Measures Can Help Stop the Flu
In March 2020, when people started taking more preventive measures like staying home, Dr. Rinderknecht says it caused an abrupt stop to last year’s flu season.
“With the unpredictability of COVID-19 circulating at the same time as the flu, the best measures we have for decreasing the spread of COVID-19 will also work on influenza since they’re both spread the same way. That means wearing your cloth face coverings, social distancing, regular hand washing, cleaning frequently touched surfaces and avoiding crowds,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
4. Testing for Flu and COVID-19 is Imperfect
While testing is important, the tests for both coronavirus and flu are not perfect. No matter what type of test you use, the tests only detect parts of the viruses. It all depends on the timing and what stage the viruses are in, in your body. For that reason, if you test too early, you might get a negative test result. Or, even when you are no longer contagious, you might get a positive test. Dr. Rinderknecht notes this dynamic is why the tests are considered imperfect, or unreliable.
“This is an important concept – these tests can come back positive for the virus and the person may be over the infection and no longer contagious. This is the reason that the end of isolation is best determined by your care team,” he says.
For COVID-19 specifically, those that think or know they have COVID-19 should follow the most current CDC self-isolation recommendations:
- Quarantine at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared
- Be fever-free at least 24 hours without fever-reducing medication
- Note an improvement in COVID-19 symptoms
Whether you get the coronavirus or the flu, what to do to keep yourself and others safe can be confusing. It’s always a good idea to contact your care team to find out the best advice for your situation in order to keep yourself and others healthy.