Unfortunately, the answer is that you could contract both the COVID-19 virus and the flu simultaneously. CNN calls it a “twin-demic” and it’s a big concern for healthcare providers in the U.S. this year.
Craig P. Chase, M.D., a partner of Oviedo Medical Research, says, “There’s really no reason why you can’t get both of these diseases at the same time. Both of these viruses make you more susceptible to other diseases.”
As we near the fall, a time when it seems like just about everyone is sneezing and coughing, here’s what you need to know about COVID-19 and the common flu.
What are the Differences Between COVID-19 and the Flu?
There are similarities and differences between common influenza, or the flu, and COVID-19. Both are viral diseases that are contagious and infect the respiratory tract. However, they are caused by different types of viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that COVID-19 is caused by a new type of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, while the flu is caused by the far more common Types A and B influenza viruses that spread in human populations every year.
COVID-19 is a far newer virus that we’re still learning about, however it shares some common symptoms with the flu virus, including:
- Body aches
- Difficulty breathing
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
In addition, some people may have diarrhea and vomiting, although this more commonly occurs in children.
Unlike the flu, the COVID-19 virus can also cause you to lose your sense of smell and taste.
Both viruses spread person-to-person from droplets from the nose and mouth. Sneezing, coughing, or even just talking to another person without facial protection can spread both the flu and COVID-19. Touching a surface that has these viruses and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose, can spread both of these diseases.
What Should We Expect from the Flu Season This Year?
The COVID-19 pandemic hit at the end of last year’s flu season. The reality is we don’t know exactly what to expect this year. GoodRX states, “Since it hasn’t been studied well, we don’t know exactly what will happen when people get both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.”
However, the fact that you can get the flu and COVID at the same time is worrisome all by itself. Dr. Chase says “There’s no reason why the flu can’t make you susceptible to COVID and vice versa, COVID to flu.” The CDC agrees, stating, “It’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both spread this fall and winter.”
Dr. Chase points out the danger of these illnesses this fall and winter, “One of the things that really gets people with the flu sick is that they get the flu and then seven to 10 days later they get a second opportunistic infection. They might get a sinus infection; they might get pneumonia. The same thing is happening with COVID. People are getting COVID and while their immune system is down, they end up getting pneumonia on top of it and that puts them in the hospital.”
On their own, the flu and COVID-19 can attack the respiratory tract, causing lung fluid, pneumonia, or even respiratory failure. CNN reports that COVID-19 and the flu can also cause inflammation of the heart, muscles, or brain, and sepsis. While we’ve yet to experience it, having both illnesses simultaneously could increase risk that any of these organs could suffer from long-term ill-effects. Too, experiencing both of these illnesses together could increase your risk of experiencing respiratory distress or even failure, which is when the lungs can’t get enough oxygen into the blood. This is a life-threatening condition.
Prevention seems to be the key to halting this alarming chain of events. How can you protect yourself this fall and winter from both COVID-19 and the flu?
How Can You Protect Yourself from COVID-19 and the Flu?
Key to mitigation of any virus is prevention. Since COVID-19 and the seasonal flu have so many similarities, some of the same preventative steps you can take to prevent one also works on the other. The CDC suggests:
- Washing your hands frequently for at least 20-seconds with soap and water
- This is especially important if you’ve been in a public place
- Before preparing food
- After using the restroom
- After coughing or blowing your nose
- Before touching your face
- If you handle your mask
- Before touching someone else
- If you can’t wash your hands use a good quality hand sanitizer made with at least 60% alcohol
- Do not touch your face
- Wear a mask in public
- Socially distance yourself, keeping six feet between you and anyone else in public
- Keep in mind that people without symptoms may still have the virus
- Cover your mouth and nose if you need to sneeze
- Throw used tissues in the trash
- Clean and disinfect all surfaces you touch frequently throughout the day
- Take your temperature
While these behaviors may help you avoid infection, it’s important to note that, while there is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, there is a seasonal flu vaccine. To lessen your risk of coming down with both infections at the same time, consider getting a seasonal flu shot this year. Only one-half of Americans typically report they get their seasonal flu shot. Even if you get the flu shot, you can still pick up the virus but the symptoms are usually much less severe as a result.
Each year, 140,000 to 810,000 Americans are hospitalized with the flu each year. As of July, nearly 60,000 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19. Predictions suggest COVID-19 hospitalizations are predicted to surge by more than 150% between now and December 1. Protect yourself by taking precautions to prevent illness this fall and winter.
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