Flu vs. COVID-19: How to tell the difference

Flu vs. COVID-19: How to tell the difference

With the fall season and cooler weather just around the corner also comes the influenza (flu) season, a period that usually peaks between December and February but can last as late as May. This year’s flu season, however, looks a little different than most, as we’re also dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. So, how do you know if the symptoms you’re feeling are the flu, COVID-19, or perhaps just a common cold?  Erica Eaddy, M.D. of Piedmont Physicians Fayette South Family Practice shares some of the key differences between the illnesses as well as things to know.  

“The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses that have very similar symptoms,” Dr. Eaddy said. “Because of this, it’s hard to distinguish between the two, but these two illnesses are caused by different viruses and they’re treated differently.” 

For starters, both flu and COVID-19 have a wide range of symptoms. Symptoms for COVID-19 range from no symptoms at all (or asymptomatic) to severe symptoms and illness that requires hospitalization. 

“Some of the most common symptoms seen with both flu and COVID-19 are fever, sore throat and cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, a runny nose, headache and body aches or muscle soreness,” Dr. Eaddy said. “Some people can also experience diarrhea or vomiting, though this is more common in children than in adults.” 

One of the major differences, however, is COVID-19 can cause a change in or loss of taste or smell. 

“That’s not something we see with flu illness, but it’s been a very common symptom for those with COVID-19,” Dr. Eaddy said. 

If you have symptoms of flu or COVID-19, Dr. Eaddy recommends calling your doctor’s office or booking a virtual visit as soon as possible. 

“Your doctor can test you for the flu and COVID-19, and testing is essential to ensure you get the right treatment and take the correct steps to prevent spreading the illness,” said Dr. Eaddy. Once tested, these illnesses are also treated differently. 

There are antiviral drugs that can treat flu illness. Antivirals are different than antibiotics and can make flu illness milder and shorten the time you’re sick. They can also prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia, when treatment is started early.  

“There are not currently any drugs or other therapeutics approved to prevent COVID-19 like there are for flu illness, but there are studies in progress to learn more,” said Dr. Eaddy. “If you are sick with COVID-19, your best form of treatment includes staying home and taking care of yourself as well as staying in touch with your doctor.”  

Another similarity between the flu and COVID-19 is how they’re spread. Both COVID-19 and flu can spread when people are in close contact with one another and are spread mainly by droplets when people with the illness (whether it be flu or COVID-19) cough, sneeze or talk. 

“It’s also possible that someone can get infected with flu or COVID-19 by physical touch, like shaking hands or touching a surface that has virus on it,” said Dr. Eaddy.