Is It Flu or COVID-19?
Know the Symptoms
Published September 2021
Fever. Cough. Sore throat. Congestion. Fatigue. Muscle aches.
These are symptoms of both COVID-19 and flu, which is why you may not be able to tell which you have without seeing your physician or getting a test. Loss of smell and taste seems to be unique to COVID-19, but even if you have this symptom, you cannot be sure that you have COVID-19 without getting tested.
"There is too much overlap between the symptoms of flu, COVID-19 and even the common cold to know what's making you sick," says Northwestern Medicine Pulmonologist Benjamin D. Singer, MD. "The ultimate answer is to consult your physician."
Create Your Plan of Action for Flu Season During the Pandemic
Going through flu season during a global pandemic can be challenging. Dr. Singer suggests that you call your physician in early fall to create a plan for yourself and your family should any of you get symptoms of flu or COVID-19.
"Your physician will be able to tell you what actions to take — for example, when to just call their office and when to come in to the emergency department — based on your personal health history," he says.
You know your body best, so pay close attention to how you feel this flu season. For example, if you typically wake up with a dry or scratchy throat in the winter, but this eventually goes away during the day, you do not need to call your physician. However, if you have a symptom that is unusual for you or one that lingers, make the call.
Many physicians are testing for influenza and COVID-19 at the same time because of their similar symptoms. They also require different treatment approaches. For example, people with confirmed flu can be prescribed antiviral medications like oseltamivir, which does not work for COVID-19. Likewise, some approved treatments for COVID-19 would not work for flu.
"There are treatments that work for COVID-19 that are ineffective or may even hurt you if you have influenza," adds Dr. Singer. "This drives home the point that calling your physician to arrive at the proper diagnosis is so important."
Get Vaccinated to Protect Yourself
The best way to protect yourself against severe illness from the flu and COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated.
"A question I get asked a lot is, 'How can I boost my immune system?'" says Dr. Singer. "The best way is getting your COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot."
Beyond the minor discomfort of the injections, a common myth that may keep people from getting the flu and COVID-19 vaccines is that they can infect you with the virus they are meant to protect you from. However, this is not possible because the vaccines do not contain the live viruses that causes these illnesses.
"Another reason why people don't come in for these vaccines is because they think if they are not 100% effective, they shouldn't even bother with them," says Dr. Singer. "The bottom line is that any protection from respiratory, flu-like diseases like influenza and COVID-19 is going to be helpful."
Remember that while the flu vaccine may not always prevent you from getting flu, and the COVID-19 vaccine may not always prevent you from getting COVID-19, they are still very effective at helping you avoid serious illness. Studies suggest that those who are vaccinated are less likely to be hospitalized or die from flu or COVID-19.
Get Vaccinated to Protect Others
Getting vaccinated doesn't just protect you: It helps protect others, too.
"Getting the flu and COVID-19 vaccines means that you'll be less likely to come into the emergency department with symptoms, which means creating more space for high-risk groups that may need a higher level of care for flu, COVID-19 or anything else more urgently," says Dr. Singer.
Your vaccination may help protect people who are not able to get vaccinated, including young children. It may also help protect people at higher risk of serious illness, such as older adults and those with chronic health conditions like heart and lung disease, and diabetes.
Do your part this flu season: Monitor your symptoms, stay home when you are sick and get vaccinated.