How can you know if you have COVID or the flu? Some symptoms of the COVID-19 virus are very similar to the common flu, so how can you tell the difference? 

Craig P. Chase, M.D., a partner of Oviedo Medical Research, says there is a short answer to this question, and it is simply, “You have to get tested. That’s the only way you’re going to know if you have COVID-19 or the flu.”

What Do We Know About COVID Symptoms?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says anyone can have mild to severe COVID-19 symptoms. However, it is the people with underlying health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, that are at higher risk of developing complications from the COVID-19 virus.

COVID-19 is a coronavirus, which is a type of infectious virus that can cause illness in people and animals. In December 2019, the novel (new) coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 spread throughout the globe. It was first identified in Wuhan, China, as causing the severe respiratory illness called COVID-19. 

The virus, which is spread by airborne droplets from the infected person when they sneeze, cough, or talk. The droplets fly through the air and, if they don’t land on a person, fall to the ground. (That’s why masking and social distancing are effective preventatives.) The symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Severe fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat

How is the Flu Different from COVID?

The biggest difference between the common seasonal flu is the lost of taste and smell. Otherwise, these two disorders can manifest with very similar symptoms.

Dr. Chase says the only way to know for sure is to be tested, however, “I would say…If you develop severe headaches, body aches, and a high fever in a very short period of time, usually within 24-hours; you are much more likely to have the flu than COVID.”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the incubation period for COVID-19 is about 14-days in the average person.

The COVID-19 virus manifests itself more slowly than the flu in most cases. However, it can be confusing because it has all the same symptoms as the seasonal flu. While Dr. Chase says there are some slow onset seasonal flus, most of the times his patients say, “I went to bed feeling fine. I woke up feeling like I got hit by a truck.” While that sounds like the seasonal flu, it’s a good idea to call your doctor right away and get tested for one or both of these illnesses. In both cases, Dr. Chase says, “You need to isolate yourself and stay away from people. That way we don’t get everybody else sick.”

However, you should seek medical attention immediately if you or the ill person:

  • Has a blue tinge to their lips or face
  • Has difficulty breathing
  • Has pain or pressure in the chest
  • Is mentally confused or can’t wake up

How Can I Be Tested for COVID or Flu?

There are two basic types of COVID-19 testing: 

  • A viral test can tell if you are currently infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19
  • An antibody test can see if your body created antibodies in an effort to defend itself from COVID

However, not everyone needs COVID-19 testing. Some people experience very mild symptoms and can isolate themselves at home. A test can be helpful to know if you have COVID-19 so you can avoid passing on the virus to other people. The best thing to do, even if you have mild symptoms, is to call your doctor to discuss what you should do.

If you are suspected of having the flu, your doctor will usually conduct a physical exam. This may be through a video chat (telemedicine) or in-person. You may receive a number of tests to diagnose the flu. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests these tests for detection of the influenza virus:

  • Immunofluorescence
  • Rapid influenza diagnostic tests
  • Rapid molecular assays
  • Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction
  • Serologic testing
  • Viral Culture

While these are a few of the tests available, all are designed to assess whether you have influenza and the type of flu virus you have.

Can I Prevent Both the Flu and COVID?

The answer is resoundingly, “Yes.” Because COVID-19 and the flu are viruses, there are similar ways to protect yourself—with one critical caveat. There are many types of flu strains and they’re constantly changing. Flu vaccines protect against the three or four flu viruses predicted to be most common each year. Conversely, COVID-19 not only has no cure, there is no immunization to prevent the disease.

The CDC says:

“While it’s not possible to say with certainty what will happen in the fall and winter, CDC believes it’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading. In this context, getting a flu vaccine will be more important than ever. CDC recommends that all people 6 months and older get a yearly flu vaccine.”

The real danger this season is that Americans run the risk of contracting both the COVID-19 virus and the flu. Coinfection, which is when one person has both illnesses, could be a very difficult blow to your immune system. While the flu shot is about 60% effective, those are certainly better odds than the 0% that comes from no immunization at all. 

For both the flu and COVID-19, prevention is key to keeping yourself safe. Since there’s no COVID vaccine, washing your hands, disinfecting the areas you touch, wearing a mask, and social distancing are the best ways to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Ironically, these methods will also stop or slow the spread of the common seasonal influenza virus.

Oviedo Medical Research conducts clinical trials for life-saving medications and vaccines. Contact us if you are interested in participating in a clinical trial or research that could improve the lives of millions.