Is It The Flu Or COVID? Here’s What To Know

by Nikkya Hargrove
Originally Published: 

If you’ve recently needed to cough in public, I am sure you got the side-eye from someone — or even a downright death stare. Hopefully, their mouth was masked which hid their half-smile, extending a little “feel better” comfort to you. But even if you got some questionable looks, who can blame a person in this pandemic age? How can you possibly tell the difference if that cough is your seasonal cold, or you’ve caught a much more challenging virus? Both COVID-19 and the flu are contagious respiratory illnesses caused by very different viruses.

I am guilty of it myself; I see the person in the grocery store cough followed by a sniffle, and I can’t help but stare. Like practically everyone else on earth, I’ve been living with anxiety about the possibility of getting COVID-19 or someone in my family getting it. It’s hard not to live in that anxiety. So because I don’t want to worry about any more illnesses than I have to, I got the flu shot — for the first time in six years. Why? Because I know (even though I hated getting it) that the flu shot works.

We know much more about the flu than we know about COVID-19, because it’s been around longer. The flu made its first appearance in 1918, and in 2019, infected over thirty-five million people. Unlike COVID-19 deaths, in the early days of the flu pandemic, people were dying left and right. Age did not matter; children younger than 5 were dying, adults older than 65 were dying, and everyone in between.

Do you remember what the symptoms of the flu are?

They are quite clear: runny nose or stuffy nose, cough, fever/body aches, tiredness, body aches. If you’ve not had COVID-19 and/or you don’t know anyone who has, the symptoms of COVID-19 are hard to miss. The symptoms of COVID-19 are muscle aches, fatigue, fever, difficulty breathing, a runny nose, body chills/fever (Johns Hopkins Medicine has a full list of COVID symptoms and helpful FAQs.)

The bottom line is this: the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 share commonalities, and are transmitted in very similar ways.

Who’s contagious and who is not when it comes to the flu and COVID-19?

According to the CDC’s website, “People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.” The CDC also says that anyone with the flu is most contagious in the first 3-4 days after illness begins.

A person who has COVID-19 is contagious much longer than a person who has the flu. The CDC tells us that “COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, noses, or mouth. In some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch. People who are closer than 6 feet from the infected person are most likely to get infected.”

So, how do you know if what you’ve got is the flu or COVID-19?

The symptoms of both illnesses can be so similar that without a proper test, it’s hard to know. The major difference between the two is that a loss of smell (anosmia) or taste (ageusia) hardly ever occurs with the flu, where it’s fairly common with COVID-19; however, anosmia and ageusia don’t necessarily occur right away when you have COVID. So a test is important. There are many ways to get tested – check them out.

For both the flu and COVID-19, it only takes one day to infect another person — that’s one unmasked sneeze, cough, or one rogue snotty-nosed tissue to get another person sick. It could take much longer for symptoms of COVID-19 to appear, which means you can infect another person without even knowing you are infected.

Oh, and guess what? It’s possible to have the flu and COVID at the same time.

The bottom line? Get the vaccine for both the flu and COVID-19, before you ever have to wonder about symptoms. They are proven effective and can keep you — and those around you — from getting sick. One doesn’t protect you from the other, though, so it’s imperative that you get both (and don’t forget the kids, too.)

Scripps Health chief medical officer Ghazala Sharieff, MD, MBA says in a news release that it’s safe to receive flu and the COVID-19 vaccinations at the same time, adding that, “Being vaccinated for both viruses is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from these potentially dangerous illnesses.” If you’ve had your COVID vaccine already and are wondering if you’re eligible for a booster, check out the CDC’s booster information page.

And, of course, mask up.

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