What's the Difference Between COVID-19 and the Flu?

September 10, 2020

As the flu season approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic, Justin Zaghi of Heal says the flu shot is more important than ever this year for a few reasons.

Flu season is around the corner and those who show symptoms may have a hard time differentiating the actual flu to the Coronavirus.

Justin Zaghi, medical director of Heal, shares the difference between the symptoms of the two viruses and what to do as precautions against them.

While both the flu and COVID-19 share the common symptoms of fever, cough, fatigue, muscle aches, sore throat, runny nose, and headache, there are a few signs that make it more likely someone has COVID over the flu.

According to Zaghi, the more COVID-like symptoms include loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, and "COVID toes," which is when one's toes swell and turn pink, red, or a purple color.

Like your common flu, a visit to the doctors should be made when any of these symptoms are experienced. However, in times of a pandemic, unless you have severe symptoms like trouble breathing, high fevers, chest pain, or confusion, it’s usually best to start with a telemedicine visit. This way your provider can evaluate you remotely and provide you with guidance on how to best manage your symptoms, as well as on how to get properly tested. Your provider may also recommend you get an in-person evaluation to better assess your symptoms. By using telemedicine first, you can get care safely at home while reducing the risk of transmitting the virus to others, Zaghi says.

As most of us in the world have been ordered to follow the mandated rules of socially distancing, practice frequent hand washing, and wearing masks, Zaghi recommends other tips to mitigate these symptoms. These include regular exercise, eating healthy, and keeping yourself in good spirits.

"We know that people with chronic health conditions are known to have worse outcomes with COVID-19 than healthier people," he says. "As a result, now is also a great time to work on lifestyle changes to address health problems such as being overweight, having high blood pressure, or smoking cigarettes."

If someone were to develop COVID-19 or the flu, please do see your doctor early to discuss treatment options. For the flu specifically, a medication called Tamiflu can reduce the duration of symptoms, as long as it’s started within the first 48 hours of symptoms, Zaghi says.

"As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he adds.

The last form of prevention and most-known way to prevent flu-like symptoms is the flu shot, especially this season.

Zaghi says the flu shot is more important than ever this year for a few reasons.

"First, it’s a proven method to reduce the likelihood of getting and spreading the flu," he says. "Second, reducing the incidence of the flu in our communities will both help save lives and ensure we have adequate resources to treat patients with COVID-19. Third, it’s technically possible to be infected with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time; it’s still unclear how ill someone might be with both viruses, but once again prevention with the flu shot is the best approach."