Flu Season

Is it COVID-19 or the Flu? 

COVID-19 has shaken the world and with the flu season fast approaching, it has many worried about a “twindemic.” Dr. Sidharth Sharma with Primary Care of Milton, a Northside network provider, answers the following questions to help you understand both viruses and what you can do to prevent contracting them.

How are COVID-19 and flu viruses similar? Different?

Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by an infection with a new coronavirus called SARS Cove–2. The flu is caused by an infection with influenza viruses. Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar it may be hard to tell the difference between them. And based on symptoms alone testing may be needed to help confirm the diagnosis. 

Both COVID-19 and the flu can have varying degrees of sinus symptoms ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms.

Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish with chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headaches

Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. This is more common in children than in adults though. There are quite a few differences between the two. Flu viruses can cause mild to severe illness including common signs and symptoms listed above. COVID-19 signs and symptoms that are different from flu may include change in or loss of taste or smell.

Are the viruses spread the same way?

Both COVID-19 and flu can spread from person to person, between people were in close contact with one another and within about 6 feet. Both are spread mainly by droplets made when people with illnesses cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouth or noses of people who were nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It may be possible that a person can get infected by shaking hands or by touching the surface or an object that has the virus on it and then touching his or her own mouth, nose or possibly the eyes.

What are the key symptoms to look out for with each virus? If the patient comes into the office can you identify the virus based on the symptoms?

It is difficult to tell the difference as there is quite a bit of variability in the symptoms. Some people have no symptoms, some people have mild symptoms and some have serious symptoms. If a person has a stuffy and runny nose, or sore throat and congestion without a fever they probably have a cold. If a person is having more serious symptoms with a fever, body aches and shortness of breath this may indicate a serious infection. Loss of the ability to smell or taste has also been identified as an early symptom of COVID-19. It is difficult to identify the virus based on the symptoms alone lab testing is necessary to differentiate between COVID-19 and the influenza virus

With flu, how long after exposure to symptoms typically appear? How long are you contagious?

Typically a person develops symptoms anywhere from one to four days after becoming infected. Most people with the flu are contagious for about one day before they show symptoms. Older children and adults with the flu appear to be most contagious during the initial three to four days of the illness but may remain contagious for about seven days.

Since we are still in a pandemic, what should someone do if they think they have symptoms of flu or COVID-19?

If you develop symptoms of COVID-19 it is important to take the following steps:

  • Stay home. By staying home you can help prevent spreading the virus to others in your community. Plan to only go out if you need to seek medical care. Even if your symptoms are mild do not go to work, school or public places and avoid public transportation.
  • Separate yourself from others. If you share your home with others, distance yourself from them as much as possible. Try to use a bedroom and bathroom that are separated from the rest of your household.
  • Call your doctor. It is important to let your doctor or health care provider know about your symptoms. They may ask you questions about when and how you may have been exposed. Try to answer to the best of your ability.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions. Your doctor will give instructions on how to care for yourself while you are ill. They may also arrange for you to be tested for COVID-19 if you have not been tested already.

Are the same population at high risk for contracting flu versus COVID-19?

Both COVID-19 and flu illness can result in severe illness and complications. Those at the highest risk include older adults, people with certain underlying medical conditions and pregnant people. The risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu, compared to COVID-19. However, infants and children with an underlying medical condition are at risk for both flu and COVID-19.

What are other complications that can result from the flu?

Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days or less than two weeks. But some people can develop complications like:

  • Pneumonia
  • Respiratory failure
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Sepsis
  • Cardiac injury
  • Worsening of chronic medical condition
  • Inflammation of the heart,  brain or muscle tissue
  • Secondary bacterial infection

There are no clinically proven treatments available yet for COVID. How’s the flu treated?

The flu is treated primarily with rest and fluids to let the body fight the infection on its own. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers may help with symptoms. An annual vaccine can help prevent the flu and limit its complication. Some medications like decongestants, cough medication and pain relievers can also be used. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, Xofluza and Relenza prescribed by the doctor can also be used for the treatment.

What are the biggest challenges health care providers face going into this year’s flu season while you are still in the COVID-19 pandemic?

The greatest challenges come when in the midst of the flu season, we have to rule out COVID-19 infections in patients who have a mild case of upper respiratory infection. This will cause increased visits to the doctor's office or to the emergency room, which will further burden the system. Because of the fear of catching COVID-19 at the hospital or the doctor's office, many easily preventable conditions will be missed as the patients will avoid going to the doctor's office. Another challenge would be trying to stop the spread of this virus among the younger population who still need to attend school or sports activities. This is the greatest public health challenge that we are facing in the last few generations.

How important is getting the flu vaccine each year?

An annual seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to help protect against flu. Vaccination has been shown to have many benefits including reducing the risk of flu illness, hospitalization and even the risk of flu-related death in children. Getting a flu vaccine can also save health care resources for the care of patients with COVID-19.

To prevent COVID-19, individuals are encouraged to wash their hands often, wear a mask and socially distance. Will the same precautions prevent the flu?

Public health measures such as movement restriction, social distancing and increased personal hygiene likely will have an effect on decreasing influenza and other respiratory virus transmissions according to the World Health Organization. It is logical to think that the flu season will be much shorter as people are coming in less contact with infected people. Schools, work, social events have been canceled all around the globe this will definitely help decrease the spread not only of the coronavirus but the flu virus as well.

What is the most important message you want everyone to know about the flu? This year’s flu season?

Please follow the general guidelines for getting your flu vaccine. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water and use hand sanitizer when you can. Social distancing and wearing a mask will definitely help prevent the spread of flu along with COVID-19, which will help fight this global pandemic. Just by taking these simple precautions we can combat not only COVID-19, but the flu season and alleviate some of the burden on the health system.

Virtual visits also are now available with many of Northside’s providers. Find a provider near you.