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Flu vs. COVID-19: How can you tell which you have? – CNET

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Symptoms for the flu and COVID-19 can look similar — here’s what you need to know.


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If all of the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 weren’t enough to keep track of, once we head into the fall season, those symptoms could overlap with those of another contagious virus: Influenza

Unfortunately, many flu symptoms can look very similar to the coronavirus, which can be downright confusing if you start to get sick. Thankfully, there is already a vaccine for the flu. Scientists are working on a vaccine for COVID-19 — but it’s not likely going to be available until early 2021. 

As we head into the upcoming flu season in the midst of a pandemic, I consulted Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead at Forward to help shed some light on what you need to know about both viruses and what to do if you get sick. 

“This is going to be a really challenging flu season because it’s very difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu based on symptoms alone. We don’t have a great way of differentiating the two other than testing, and as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, our COVID-19 testing capacity in the US is currently a disaster,” Dr. Favini said.

One the other hand, flu testing is available to most people and provides results quickly. The problem is if someone is sick and tests negative for the flu, you still need to know if they have COVID-19. “Rapid flu testing is widely available, but that won’t be sufficient, because someone who is negative for flu could have COVID-19 or any other of a number respiratory illnesses that circulate in the fall and winter,” Dr. Favini says. The CDC also says it’s possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

The FDA recently granted emergency use authorizations to several medical testing companies for a combination diagnostic test that can detect COVID-19 and the flu with a single sample. “With just one swab or sample, combination tests can be used to get answers to Americans faster. This efficiency can go a long way to providing timely information for those sick with an unknown respiratory ailment,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn said in the press release. However, we don’t know when combination tests will be available or how widely they will be distributed across the country. 

Keep reading to learn more about the difference between the flu and COVID-19, and the signs and symptoms to look for.

Flu and COVID-19 symptoms

The flu and COVID-19 share many overlapping symptoms, which is why, if you show signs of any of the symptoms listed below, the first thing you should do is seek testing and isolate yourself from others in your household. The CDC has said that COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu for certain groups of people, which means it can spread more easily and faster from person to person.

Dr. Favini says that testing every person with symptoms for the flu and COVID-19 is ideal, but he’s unsure if the healthcare system is prepared for that scale of testing. “The problem is that the country is unprepared for the surge in COVID-19 cases that every public health expert is expecting this fall and winter. Unless we change our approach to testing and invest massively in scaling it up, you should expect to see long delays on COVID-19 test results that will be really problematic for taking care of people and for public health,” Favini says.

Shared symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu, according to the CDC:

  • Fever or feeling feverish; experiencing chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
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Wearing a face mask is a simple precaution you can take to prevent COVID-19 and flu.


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Differences between COVID-19 and the flu

There are several symptoms that vary between COVID-19 and the flu, but it’s important to first keep in mind that the symptoms for COVID-19 and the flu can vary for person to person, so the following symptoms can’t necessarily rule out one virus over the other.

One major difference between COVID-19 and the flu is that people who experience COVID-19 report a change or loss of smell and taste. But not everyone experiences this symptom with the virus, and it can occur at any point when a person is sick. 

Another big difference between COVID-19 and the flu is that you are contagious for a longer period of time if you have COVID-19 than if you have the flu. We also know that it’s likely that someone with COVID-19 can spread the virus before their symptoms even show, or they can have the virus and show no symptoms yet still spread it to others

How to protect yourself from both the flu and COVID-19

The good news is that many of the practices that you’re already doing to prevent COVID-19 can also help prevent the flu. “We will all need to double down on our efforts to protect each other this flu season. Stay home if you can. Wear a mask any time you leave your home, avoid touching your face, stay six feet away from others, wash your hands well with soap and water when you return home,” Dr. Favini says.

Additionally, getting the flu vaccine when it’s available is important to protect yourself from the flu. While it’s not a fail-safe to keep you from getting sick, it does cut down the odds that you’ll be infected with the flu, which is still contagious and can cause serious health issues in many people.


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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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