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Is it the Flu or COVID-19? Navigating the Upcoming Flu Season

Nurse giving a flu vaccination

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the flu season nearly upon us, many have legitimate health concerns about the coming months. It’s important to understand the similarities and differences between these two respiratory viruses, and how you can protect yourself from contracting either.

COVID-19 and the flu are both transmitted through respiratory droplets spread by coughing and sneezing. They present similar symptoms of cough, shortness of breath and fever or feeling feverish. However, there are some significant differences:

  • COVID-19 also presents symptoms affecting the neurological system: loss of smell and taste. Gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, have been observed with COVID-19. Vomiting and diarrhea are more common in children with the flu, than in adults.
  • Expected flu recovery time is about two weeks. With COVID-19, some people may develop long-term symptoms, such as blood clots, heart damage and lung damage.
  • Once someone is exposed to COVID-19, it may take two to 14 days for symptoms to appear. With the flu symptoms begin sooner—one to four days after exposure.
  • People with COVID-19 are infectious for a longer period than those with the flu—10 days versus seven.

While both COVID-19 and flu viruses are spread similarly, we have observed COVID-19 to be a “super spreader.” It can transmit quickly and easily among many people before symptoms appear or while people are still infectious—especially in crowds or in places with poor ventilation.

How can you protect yourself and your family?

As we await an effective vaccine and treatment for COVID-19, we have access to a flu vaccine and antiviral flu treatment. It’s critical to get your flu shot as soon as possible. It will prevent you from developing symptoms otherwise identified as COVID-19 and protect you from severe illness from the flu. Fewer flu cases will also avoid overburdening the health care system while we continue battling COVID-19.

The same guidelines we’re using to avoid COVID-19 are effective for flu prevention. We must continue to physically distance, wear masks and frequently wash our hands. Other countries that have recently completed their flu seasons have reported lower flu cases due to COVID-19 safety precautions. The U.S. could have a similar experience if everyone works to stop the spread of these other respiratory viral infections.

What if you have the flu, COVID-19 or both?     

It is possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, providing even more reason to get your flu shot. If you have symptoms, contact your health care provider immediately. Telehealth appointments are available for an initial assessment, and we have precautions in place if you need testing or evaluation.

We all want life to go back to “normal,” but we can’t relax now. It’s the first time we’ll experience flu and COVID-19 together, so I encourage you to be aware of what’s happening in your community, and follow the guidance of your local public health experts. We’re all in this together.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock has a number of options available for you to get your flu shot and information about COVID-19 testing.

Jose MercardoJose Mercado, MD, is the associate hospital epidemiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He also serves as assistant professor of Medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.