The chilly autumn breeze is blowing flu season back into the limelight. This time last year, we didn’t have COVID vaccines and we weren’t yet familiar with the idea of viral variants. The world has since realized that it’s less about getting back to normal and more about adjusting to the new normal. Part of that adjustment is entering another flu season with the added threat of contracting COVID-19.
Another year into the pandemic and with over 55% of the US population now vaccinated, will the flu still cause COVID confusion? Read on to explore the similarities and differences between the flu and COVID, and discover what vaccines mean for flu season this year.
Both the flu and COVID-19 are respiratory illnesses. They’re caused by different viruses, but transmission is the same: one infected individual coughing, sneezing, or even talking within close range to someone else. The droplets in the air pass from person to person, infecting him or her with the virus.
The main difference in the transmission is that COVID is generally more contagious than the flu. The COVID delta variant is 2x even more transmissible. The reason is that COVID droplets can linger in the air longer than those of the flu, sometimes for hours. This is why masks aid in the prevention of transmission.
Fortunately, vaccines are now available for both viruses and are effective in reducing infection rates. For COVID, vaccines also lessen the severity of symptoms in breakthrough cases. The CDC recommends getting your COVID vaccine as soon as possible, and your flu shot before or during the month of October. Remember that COVID and flu vaccines only aid in the prevention of infection, not in the treatment of symptoms. Plan ahead and receive your vaccinations as soon as possible.
At this point in the pandemic, lifestyle-based preventative measures are no surprise. Following these steps will promote safety from COVID-19, viral variants, and the flu:
Symptoms from both illnesses are similar and can leave you feeling anything from mildly uncomfortable to unbelievably crummy.
The CDC has put out a comprehensive guide to aid in understanding the similarities and differences between the flu and COVID.
These are symptoms common to both:
While the loss of smell and/or taste can occur with many viral upper respiratory illnesses, it is much more common with COVID 19.
Another notable difference is in how long symptoms take to present themselves. With the flu, symptoms generally manifest within 1-4 days post-exposure, while COVID symptoms can take anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks to display.
Serious complications are relatively rare for both the flu and COVID, but they do exist. In worst-case scenarios, both viruses can lead to advanced illness—even death, especially in those most susceptible including the immunocompromised or elderly. This is why prevention through vaccination and other measures are so important.
Due to the number of overlapping symptoms, there is not a fool-proof way to diagnose COVID or the flu – testing is the only way to know for sure. If you fear exposure, you should begin social distancing and talk to your doctor about getting tested. Some additional clues that indicate whether or not your symptoms are related to COVID:
If the symptoms are mild and bearable, some rest and recovery may be all you need to get back in action for either virus. Bedrest, plenty of fluids, good nutrition, and taking it easy are key. If you’re COVID positive, also be sure to follow the guidelines for quarantine to keep others safe.
While some are currently in the works, there aren’t yet any approved drugs available for COVID. On the other hand, there are some antiviral drugs available for the flu that can help with symptoms. These prescribed medications can lessen the duration and severity of illness and reduce the risk of complications. These drugs include Tamiflu, Relenza, Rapivab, and Xofluza. Remember that because these are viral infections, antibiotics are not helpful in treating COVID or the flu.
Especially during the acute phase of the illness when you have a fever, take it easy. Remember to take in sufficient calories to support the increased requirements of your immune system. There are many ways in which we fluids during these illnesses, so remember to drink extra water and other nonalcoholic/decaffeinated beverages.
By definition, a breakthrough case refers to a vaccinated individual who tests positive for infection. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of reported breakthrough COVID cases show fewer hospitalizations and less severe symptoms than infected individuals who are not yet vaccinated. Vaccinated people are 8 times less likely to come down with COVID, and if they do, they’re 25 times less likely to require hospitalization.
Because breakthrough cases generally have less severe symptoms, it’s more likely for a case of COVID to be mistaken for a seasonal cold or mild flu. Getting tested is the only way to know for sure. Remember that a breakthrough case is still COVID, and it’s important to quarantine and practice preventative measures to keep from infecting others.