COVID vs. the flu: What to do next if you get sick this winter

Dec 11, 2020


During the winter, many of us are likely to get a cold or the flu. But this year, with COVID-19 cases on the rise, how can you tell if your symptoms are the flu or COVID-19?

Signs and symptoms

It may be difficult to tell if you have COVID-19 or the flu because there is significant overlap between many of the symptoms. Both the flu and coronavirus can cause:

  • Fever, chills
  • Fatigue, body aches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Runny nose, cough, sore throat

Although the symptoms can overlap, COVID-19 can also cause a loss of taste or smell, while the flu does not. While the flu typically causes mild to moderate illness, current evidence shows COVID-19 leads to more severe sickness in some people. In particular, those who are over the age of 65, or have underlying health conditions such as asthma or diabetes are at a higher risk of experiencing COVID-19 complications.

How the viruses spread

With both viruses, people can be contagious before they feel sick. For example, someone can have the flu virus for one to four days before they develop symptoms. With COVID-19, a person can have the infection for two to 14 days before showing symptoms. However, people typically develop coronavirus symptoms within five days of exposure. After a person has COVID-19, they can still be contagious for at least 10 days after their symptoms appear.

The viruses spread in similar ways — most often by respiratory droplets when people are standing within 6 feet of each other. These droplets spread when someone coughs, sneezes or talks without a face covering. You can also catch either the flu or COVID-19 through shaking someone’s hand or touching a germ-filled surface, such as a doorknob or light switch.

While coronavirus and the flu can be spread in similar ways, COVID-19 has been associated with more “superspreading” events. These are events where the virus is quickly and easily transmitted to many people, resulting in continuous spreading over time.

What to do when you feel sick

If you develop any symptoms that could indicate COVID-19, it’s crucial to take appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of the infection. Call your primary care doctor or nurse practitioner to alert them of what symptoms you are experiencing. Your provider may recommend a virtual visit and getting a COVID-19 test.

If you feel sick, stay home and isolate from others as much as possible. Avoid going to work or social gatherings until symptoms disappear, whether it’s COVID-19 or the flu. Call your doctor or visit the hospital immediately if you develop emergency symptoms, including trouble breathing, sudden confusion, bluish lips or face, or persistent chest pain.

The biggest difference

The most significant difference between the flu and COVID-19 is that there is no available vaccine for COVID-19. Additionally, when someone has the flu, there are FDA-approved antiviral drugs that doctors can use for treatment. While doctors are learning more about COVID-19 every day and a safe and effective vaccine is close to approval, there are currently no FDA-approved drugs for COVID-19 prevention or treatment.

Lower your risk of getting either the flu or COVID-19 this winter by following proper safety precautions. Wear a mask around others, stay 6 feet apart and wash your hands frequently — all of these can make a significant difference in helping you stay healthy this winter.

If you’re concerned you have COVID-19, call your primary care provider. If you don’t have one, call us at 503-261-6929. We will help you find provider who best fits your location and your needs.

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