Your questions answered
By: Patrick D. Sura, MD
Chief Medical Officer and Emergency Medicine Physician
Amery Hospital & Clinic
Each year as the summer winds down and school resumes, we know that flu season is looming. But this year, our annual influenza (flu) season will start up while we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
You’ve probably aware that COVID and influenza share many of the same symptoms. You might even be feeling a little under the weather now. So, how do you tell the difference between COVID symptoms and flu symptoms? The short answer is: It can be tricky. But we’re here to help.
The only way to really diagnose whether you have the flu or COVID is through appropriate testing and a clinical evaluation. Below we provide an overview of both viruses and the similarities and differences between symptoms. We also outline when you should get care and other information.
COVID-19 vs. the FLU: What’s the difference between the viruses?
The flu and COVID-19 are both highly-contagious respiratory illnesses; however, they’re caused by different viruses.
The flu is caused by influenza viruses – usually Influenza A or Influenza B viruses. There are, however, a lot of other influenza viruses. Each year, specific flu vaccines are recommended to fight the strains of influenza that research indicates will be the most common that season. So, when you make a flu shot appointment this year, you’ll get the vaccine chosen for the strain that’s anticipated this (2020-2021) flu season.
COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Our bodies had never experienced this type of coronavirus before the beginning of the pandemic, which means our bodies haven’t had a chance to build antibodies to fight it. There’s no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, but scientists and researchers are working to develop one.
Questions and Answers about the FLU and COVID-19
Can the FLU turn into COVID-19?
No. The flu can’t turn into COVID-19 and COVID-19 can’t turn into the flu. Again, these two illnesses are caused by different viruses.
Is it possible to have COVID-19 and the FLU at the same time?
Yes. It’s possible to be infected with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
How are symptoms of COVID-19 different from the FLU?
First, let’s talk about the similarities between COVID-19 symptoms and flu symptoms.
All respiratory illnesses share some similar symptoms. That’s because your respiratory system is in charge of helping you breathe and includes your airways, lungs and blood vessels. So, when bacteria or viruses get in, the whole system can be affected and cause similar symptoms.
The most prominent symptoms that COVID-19 and the flu have in common include:
- Fever (of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Muscle pain and body aches
- Fatigue (extreme tiredness or lack of energy) and weakness
- Nausea or vomiting (more common in children than adults)
- Diarrhea (more common in children and adults)
Because symptoms are so similar – and can vary from person to person – the only way to confirm whether it’s COVID-19 or influenza is through testing and/or clinical evaluation. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, don’t delay getting care.
We offer virtual care options to make it easy and convenient for you to get a diagnosis and treatment plan. When it comes to COVID-19 testing, HealthPartners has several drive-up testing sites across the Twin Cities, including at Amery Hospital & Clinic.
Now, let’s look at how COVID-19 and FLU symptoms are different.
We’re learning more about COVID-19 every day. And while there are many similarities with flu symptoms, there are some specific differences that have been identified so far. These include:
- Symptom onset – The flu comes on suddenly. Usually flu symptoms appear anywhere from one to four days after infection. COVID-19 symptoms can be more gradual. While COVID-19 symptoms can develop as early as two days after you’re infected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says five days after infection is typical. Plus, it’s possible to be infected with COVID-19 but not show any symptoms for up to 14 days.
- Cough type and severity – The flu usually causes a mild, dry cough whereas COVID-19 cough symptoms are more severe. When you have COVID-19, coughs are usually dry, persistent and can leave you short of breath.
- Symptoms – COVID-19 symptoms that don’t typically overlap or are less common with the flu include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing (This can be worse with COVID-19; however, those who have influenza and an underlying lung issue can develop pneumonia.)
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Repeated shaking with chills
- New and sudden loss of taste or smell - unique to COVID-19
- Combination of symptoms – The possibility of COVID-19 is characterized by at least two of its symptoms being present, whereas any one common flu symptom could be an indicator of the virus.
Do COVID-19 or FLU symptoms differ between adults and children? Men and women?
We’re often asked if flu symptoms in children are different than in adults. And this has become one of the most common questions about COVID-19.
Generally speaking, COVID-19 symptoms and influenza symptoms are the same for men and women – young or old. Also, most children have mild illness or no symptoms with COVID-19 in general. Few need to be hospitalized. But there are a couple things to note when it comes to symptoms in children.
Gastrointestinal issues are more common in kids
For both COVID-19 and the flu, when vomiting, nausea or diarrhea happens, it’s usually more common in children than adults. This also means that the risk of dehydration can increase. So, parents should watch for signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, no tears when crying, or no urine for 8 or more hours.
COVID-19 has been linked to another more serious, but rare, condition in kids
When it comes to COVID-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date. However, some children have developed what’s called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C). MIS-C is a condition where different parts of the body (not just the respiratory system) become inflamed. So, in addition to common COVID-19 and flu symptoms like fever, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea, other symptoms can include abdominal pain, neck pain, rash and bloodshot eyes. Seek a medical evaluation if you’re concerned about your child’s health and these symptoms.
Right now, information on this condition is limited, but the CDC is working closely with local health departments to learn more. If you want to learn more about the condition, we encourage you to visit the CDC’s MIS-C information page
What about COMMON COLD symptoms vs. FLU or COVID-19 symptoms? How are they different?
You may be thinking: Is it a cold or the flu? Is it a cold or COVID-19? How do I tell the difference?
One of the main differences in common cold symptoms compared to COVID-19 or the flu, is the type of cough. Usually, cold coughs produce phlegm or mucus, not a dry cough like COVID-19 or the flu.
In addition, symptoms like fever, muscle aches and extreme fatigue are pretty uncommon when you have a cold. You may get a little sore or feel a little more tired, but it’s much milder and goes away more quickly.
If you think you have the flu or COVID-19, testing and/or a medical evaluation is the only way to confirm your instincts. To get started, talk to your doctor, schedule a video visit or start a Virtuwell visit. You’ll find out next steps and if an in-person visit is needed. This can help us understand your symptoms and determine if COVID-19 testing or influenza testing is the right next step.
If you receive in-person care at Amery Hospital & Clinic, you may be offered a medical grade mask to further decrease risk and potential exposures to COVID-19.
Comparing COVID-19 and FLU symptoms
We’ve gone through the symptom similarities and differences between the flu and COVID-19. But here’s how they compare side-by-side.
What to do if you have COVID-like or flu-like symptoms
COVID-19 and influenza are highly-contagious viruses. If you’re experiencing any symptoms or you’re not sure if your symptoms are a match, don’t worry. Here are a few steps you can take:
- Stay home – especially if you have a fever
In general, it’s recommended that you stay home if you have a fever and for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away. If you don’t have a fever, but you have other COVID-19 or flu symptoms, speak with your doctor before heading out.
- Practice social distancing and follow masking guidelines
Maintain 6 feet distance from others and wear a mask in public (at work, school, health care facilities, retail stores, etc.). Your mask should cover your mouth, nose and chin and fit snugly against the sides of your face. Masking and social distancing help lower the risk and spread of all respiratory viruses.
- Call one of our care lines for advice
Our care lines allow you to talk directly with a nurse 24/7, 365 days a year completely free of charge. They can help you decide if it’s time to see a doctor, as well as provide helpful home remedy advice. To get in touch, call 715-268-8000 or the HealthPartners CareLine℠ at 800-551-0859.
- Get treatment and care virtually
Whether you’re stuck at home with a fever or you aren’t ready to leave your house just yet, there are a couple ways to get quality virtual care that fits your preferences.
- Make a video visit appointment for face-to-face care from a doctor or nurse practitioner
With video visits, your doctor will listen to your symptoms, answer questions and work with you to create a tailored treatment plan if needed. For example, your doctor may prescribe antivirals to treat the flu. Schedule a video visit by calling 715-268-8000 or online at healthpartners.com/care/appointments. Amery Hospital & Clinic also offers clinical services in Amery, Clear Lake, Luck and Turtle Lake.
- Start a virtual visit anytime, anyplace through Virtuwell.
With Virtuwell, no appointment is necessary – and treatment is available 24/7. Getting started is easy. We’ll ask you a few questions, and you’ll get your diagnosis and treatment plan from a board-certified nurse practitioner.
No matter which option you choose, if your doctor or nurse recommends COVID-19 testing or influenza testing as part of your treatment plan, they’ll help you schedule a drive-up test at a location that works best for you.
- Try to relax and take care of yourself
If you’re not feeling well of you’ve been officially diagnosed with an illness, try to get lots of rest and stay hydrated. Also, talk with your doctor about which over-the-counter medications they recommend to reduce your fever, aches and pains.
What one thing you can do to stay as healthy as possible? Get your annual INFLUENZA (FLU) shot.
There isn’t a vaccine available for COVID-19 at this time. But you can help protect yourself and others against influenza by getting your annual flu shot. I highly recommend getting it now. But if you have allergies or other health concerns, talk to your doctor before getting the flu shot.
There are many reasons to get a flu shot. When you get a flu shot, you’re up to 60% less likely to get the flu, according to the CDC
. And studies also show that even if you do get sick, your flu symptoms will be less severe and you’re less likely to need hospital care to recover.
While the flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19, it can also give you some peace of mind. It’s possible to test positive for both the flu – as well as other respiratory conditions and COVID-19 – at the same time. This can increase your risk of severe complications.
Schedule your flu shot today online at healthpartners.com/care/appointments
or by calling 715-268-8000