As usual this time of the year, influenza season is in full swing. But with the coronavirus pandemic also active, many people are concerned that it could be difficult to tell which one they have if they get sick. That's definitely a valid worry since the two illnesses share several symptoms. As if that's not scary enough, it is possible to get infected by both sicknesses at the same time.
Truthfully, it would be hard to discern between COVID-19 and the flu without getting a test or two. Here's a guide to help you understand the common and different symptoms that each illness has.
Get a Flu Shot If You Haven't Already
There is a slim silver lining to the coronavirus: Scientists aren't exactly sure if the United States will experience flu outbreaks this winter. They usually depend on Southern Hemisphere flu activity to predict how bad flu season will be. But during that region's winter, flu case numbers were 99% below normal.
Why is this? Health experts attribute this stark reduction to the fact that inhabitants of the world's southern half were practicing social distancing, washing their hands often, and wearing face mask protection when out and about in public. Fortunately, all of these coronavirus measures also protect you against influenza transmission.
Also, because there aren't many flights between the US and the Southern Hemisphere right now, the opportunity for the usual four seasonal flu seasons to "reseed" in America is smaller.
It's still prudent to practice safety despite all of this good news. Experts are urging all Americans to get flu shots for good reason — before the COVID-19 lockdown occurred, last year's flu season was on its way to becoming one of the worst in recent records. If you get the flu shot and then still end up catching the flu, experts say that you'll be much less at risk of going to the hospital or dying.
Flu shots were made in extra large batches and distributed to pharmacies and medical facilities early this year to help combat the potential of a "twindemic." If you need help finding a flu shot, try vaccinefinder.org.
Is It the Flu or the Coronavirus?
It's not unusual for people who catch colds to assume they have the flu. But while at least 100 viruses can cause the common cold, only four cause seasonal influenza. Here's a simple way to tell the difference: Do you feel like you've been hit by a truck? A bad case of the flu comes with fever, headaches, and body aches that are generally much worse than the symptoms of common cold viruses.
Besides fever, headaches, and body aches, other symptoms of the flu include a sore throat, stuffed sinuses, a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing. Some people, usually children, also experience vomiting and diarrhea. For severe cases, pneumonia is the most common complication. Shortness of breath, unusually rapid breathing, and in some cases, chest or back pain are typical signs of flu pneumonia.
Common Symptoms of the Coronavirus
Since they share several similar symptoms, discerning between the coronavirus and the flu is difficult. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are a high fever that's often accompanied by chills, a dry cough, and fatigue. There is one COVID-19 symptom that sets the virus apart from others: Victims can lose their sense of smell. And this isn't a rare occurrence; one study found that this occurs in 87% of patients. When this occurs, you can't even smell strong odors such as coffee or onions.
Less common COVID-19 symptoms include congestion, runny nose, sore throat, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and feeling out of breath when you exert yourself. Some coronavirus victims also experience itchy, red eyes or get blisters on their fingers or toes (now known as COVID toes). If you have serious difficulty breathing, feel pressure or pain in your chest, have a blue face or lips, answer simple questions incoherently, or lose consciousness, seek medical attention immediately — all of these are considered more dangerous symptoms of severe coronavirus cases.
As if COVID-19 wasn't scary enough, it can also cause blood clots that lead to lung, brain, and heart damage. Doctors believe that they've even identified long-term heart damage in mild or asymptomatic cases of the coronavirus. Another unusual but notable occurrence with COVID-19 is that people can develop pneumonia without even realizing how ill they are. Doctors aren't sure how this happens yet, but the leading theory is that lung air sacs are damaged in a way that doesn't cause carbon dioxide buildup, which is what causes that horrible out-of-breath sensation.
If you're concerned about catching COVID-19 or have loved ones at risk of severe cases, consider buying a pulse oximeter. This is a fingertip device that measures your blood-oxygen levels. If you get multiple readings under 92%, call a doctor. Detecting pneumonia earlier can lead to better outcomes.
The Best Medicine? Prevention
COVID-19 symptoms can begin surfacing two to 14 days after exposure. For most people, it begins five to seven days after exposure. If you think you have been exposed to the coronavirus, it's imperative that you warn others around you and isolate yourself as soon as possible — especially if you're in the company of people who are older or medically fragile.
Generally speaking, doctors will begin treating an illness rather than wait for test results if one particular disease is sweeping through a local region and the patient is exhibiting symptoms that align with that sickness. So unless both the flu and COVID-19 are being heavily transmitted in your area, don't be surprised if your doctor doesn't recommend a test.
We live in scary, uncertain times. A coronavirus vaccine could still take many more months, if not years, to make. So please practice preventive measures. Get your flut shot. Be diligent in wearing face mask protection. Wash your hands frequently. And of course, social distance from anyone that doesn't live in the same house as you. Prevention is the best medicine.
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