Is it COVID-19 or the flu?
One of the most common questions of the upcoming winter might be one of the most dreaded: Is it flu or is it COVID-19?
“So many of the symptoms are similar,” said Ana Paula Oppenheimer, MD, MPH, an infectious disease expert with Cape Cod Healthcare. “But some are more common in the flu than they would be in COVID. So, for example, fever and cough are common in both, while sore throat fatigue and bodily pains are more common in the flu than in COVID.”
Flu season has officially started and public health experts are advising everyone to do what they can to ward off the specter of a flu/COVID combination.
“Yes, it could happen,” said Dr. Oppenheimer. “And because we fear those with double infections would end up with even worse outcomes than what we already have, we are recommending everyone get a flu shot.”
What are the differences between flu and COVID-19 and what can you do to protect yourself? Here’s a guide based on advice from Dr. Oppenheimer and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Both COVID and flu can cause fever, cough, stomach ills and body pain, according to the CDC. But sore throat, fatigue, sneezing and headache are more common in the flu, while COVID is more likely to cause confusion, shortness of breath and a sudden loss of smell and/or taste, Dr. Oppenheimer said. “You have to think of what your exposures were -- where have you been in the last two weeks,” she said. “And if the symptoms are severe, you’re going to go to a health-care facility. They are going to test and be able to say which one is the cause.”
COVID-19 and the flu attack similar vulnerable populations: the elderly and those with underlying conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and they should get the flu shot as early as possible. Children under 5 appear to be more susceptible to flu, so any child over six months old should get a flu shot, Dr. Oppenheimer said. Pregnant women should be vaccinated as this protects them but also extends that protection to their newly born babies.
COVID and the flu both spread throughout the body, possibly leading to long-term effects, Dr. Oppenheimer said. The flu can cause convulsions and affect the muscles, including the heart muscle, and lead to serious respiratory problems such as pneumonia. Flu is a risk for both pregnant women and their babies, she said. While we are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID, we know it can cause strokes, respiratory failure, attack the heart and other organs such as the liver and kidneys and, and cause blood clots, according to the CDC. It’s been known to cause multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children.
The goal is to maintain a boundary between those who are infected with flu or COVID-19, and those who are not, Dr. Oppenheimer said. The steps we are taking against COVID-19 will also protect against the flu: Wear a mask, wash hands or use sanitizer, keep your hands away from your face, maintain social distance, and avoid indoor gatherings, she said.
There’s one more critical strategy: Get a flu shot. The vaccine is now available through doctors, pharmacies and public health clinics -- and it’s not too soon to get one. There has, however, been a local shortage of the enhanced vaccine intended for people over 65 and others at high risk. This so-called “senior” vaccine has an adjuvant -- an ingredient that boost the patient’s immune response Dr. Oppenheimer said. If you are of a certain age but at low risk, it’s probably OK to wait for supplies of the adjuvant vaccine, Dr. Oppenheimer said. But, if you are high risk, get the regular vaccine. “Something is better than nothing,” she said.