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Healthy Tips

Is It Flu or COVID-19?

Symptoms and What to Do Next

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 determine which you have without consulting your physician or getting a test. Based on current understanding, loss of smell and taste are symptoms unique to COVID-19, but even if you have these symptoms, you can’t 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

Navigating flu season during a global pandemic can be stressful, which is why Dr. Singer says the best thing to do is call your physician in early fall to create a plan for yourself and your family should any of you feel sick this flu season.

“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,” says Dr. Singer.

You know your body best, so pay close attention to how you feel this flu season. For example, if you wake up with a dry or scratchy throat in the winter, but this is a typical condition for you that eventually goes away throughout the day, you don’t need to call your physician. If you experience a symptom that is unusual for you or one that lingers, make the call.

Regardless if the symptom is typical or atypical for you, it’s important to self-isolate if you feel sick at all, especially during the pandemic.

“Since the symptoms of COVID-19 and the common cold are so similar, and COVID-19 is so contagious, you need to stay home even for your ‘usual’ cold symptoms,” says Dr. Singer.

Many physicians are testing for influenza and COVID-19 simultaneously because of their similar symptoms and different treatment. For example, people with confirmed flu can be prescribed antiviral medications like oseltamivir, which is ineffective against COVID-19.

“There are treatments that work for COVID-19 that may hurt you if you have influenza, like steroids, for example,” adds Dr. Singer. “This drives home the point that calling your physician to arrive at the proper diagnosis is so important.”

Get the Flu Shot to Protect Yourself

No flu season plan of action is complete without the flu shot, and getting it as soon as possible this year is particularly important.

“A question I get asked a lot is, ‘How can I boost my immune system?’” says Dr. Singer. “The best way is getting your flu shot.”

Beyond the minor discomfort of the injection, a common myth that deters people from getting the flu shot is that the flu shot can cause flu. It is not possible for the flu shot to cause influenza.

“Another reason why people don’t come in for the flu shot is because they think that because the flu shot is not 100% effective, they shouldn’t even bother with it,” says Dr. Singer. “The bottom line is any bit of protection from a respiratory, flu-like disease like influenza is going to be helpful.”

Remember that while the flu shot may not prevent you from getting flu, it still protects you from a severe version of flu that could send you to the hospital and even cause death.

You can also reduce your child’s risk of getting sick with a flu vaccine.

Get the Flu Shot to Protect Others

Getting the flu shot doesn’t just protect you: It protects others, too.

“Getting the flu shot means that you’ll be less likely to come into the emergency department with flu symptoms, which means creating more space for high-risk groups that may need a higher level of care for flu more urgently,” says Dr. Singer.

Your flu shot protects:

  • Adults 65 and older
  • Young children
  • People who haven’t gotten the vaccine
  • At-risk groups with chronic health conditions like heart and lung disease, and diabetes

Last flu season, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 4.4 million influenza illnesses, 58,000 influenza hospitalizations and 3,500 influenza deaths.

Do your part this flu season: Monitor your symptoms, stay home when you are sick and get your flu shot.

More Resources on COVID-19 and Flu
Benjamin D. Singer, MD
Benjamin D. Singer, MD
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Assistant Professor, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Pulmonology
  • Secondary Specialty Critical Care Medicine
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Is It Flu or COVID-19?
Is It Flu or COVID-19?

They have similar symptoms, but different treatment. Stay home and call your physician if you think you have either one.