As we enter flu season, we face unprecedented challenges. An overlap of COVID-19 and the flu may lead to an increase in respiratory illnesses and hospitalizations, placing a profound burden on our health care system.
On the other hand, it is also possible that we could see much lower rates of the flu than we’ve seen in previous years. This depends upon how well we follow recommended public health measures. Social distancing, frequent handwashing, and wearing masks aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus can also lessen the transmission of the flu. Early records from countries like Australia, China, Canada and South Korea for example, are showing lower than normal flu rates, likely due to social distancing measures.
At this stage, it is impossible to know exactly how COVID-19 will impact flu season. It is clear that as the flu season approaches, we need to continue to ramp up testing, continue to protect the most vulnerable and to get our flu shots. It is up to each of us, to keep ourselves safe, and to protect others by following all recommended public health guidelines.
What are the differences between the flu and COVID-19?
The flu and COVID-19 are both caused by viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, while the flu is caused by the influenza virus. Both are transmitted from person-to-person via droplets in the air (left behind after someone who is sick coughs, talks, or sneezes). Many symptoms of the two viral respiratory infections are similar, as well. But notable differences exist in the period of contagiousness, treatments, and symptoms of the two infections.
Period of Contagiousness
COVID-19 is much more contagious than the flu, and the length of time that you are contagious is longer. Individuals who contract the flu are typically contagious one day before symptoms appear. They are typically the most contagious during the first 3-4 days of infection but may be contagious for up to 7 days. By contrast, those infected with COVID-19 may be contagious without showing any symptoms at all and may infect others for up to 10 days.
While older adults, pregnant people and those with underlying medical conditions are at highest risk for getting severe illness from both COVID-19 and the flu, the two viruses can also impact various demographics differently. The flu tends to affect young children far more severely than COVID-19. Healthy children, without underlying conditions, tend to get less sick with COVID-19 than with the flu. However, there are exceptions. For example, COVID-19 has been linked to Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in children, which can be fatal.
COVID-19 vs. Flu Symptoms
COVID-19 and the flu also share many of the same symptoms including fever, stuffy nose, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, chest congestion, and a cough. Children may also experience gastrointestinal symptoms from either the flu or COVID-19. Yet for adults, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are more commonly seen with COVID-19. Likewise, a loss of taste or smell is a symptom unique to COVID-19.
Antibiotics do not treat the flu or COVID-19 since antibiotics only work on bacterial infections. Both viruses are treated by addressing symptoms like taking medications to reduce fever. Patients with severe illness may require hospitalization and oxygen support.
There are four FDA approved antiviral medications to reduce the severity of flu symptoms, and to shorten the length of illness in people who are hospitalized or at high risk of flu complications. While several antiviral medications and other therapies are being tested for the treatment of COVID-19, there, unfortunately, are no FDA approved treatments for COVID-19 at this time. Though the medication Remdesivir is being used as an investigational antiviral under an Emergency Use Authorization, it is not an FDA approved treatment for COVID-19 and is not given to patients outside of a hospital setting.
While no vaccine has been approved (as of this writing) for COVID-19, flu vaccines to prevent some of the most dangerous strains are widely available. With rare exceptions, everyone over the age of 6 months should receive an annual flu vaccination.
Preventing the flu begins with receiving your annual flu shot as soon as possible. Since we know that COVID-19 and the flu are transmitted the same way, the same measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can help prevent the spread of the flu. These public health recommendations include staying six-feet away from others, wearing a mask in public, frequent handwashing, and refraining from touching your face.
If I had COVID-19, would I be more likely to get the flu?
It is possible to have both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. However, scientists and health experts are still studying if people are more likely to get the flu if they have COVID-19. There is, however, data that shows that severe sickness from either the flu or COVID-19 is liable to occur in certain demographics. The elderly, those who have underlying health conditions, pregnant women, and those who are immunocompromised are more likely to experience severe illness from either virus.
Why It Is Important To Get the Flu Shot
It is vital that everyone get a flu shot this year. Flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic could be a double threat for our health care system. The flu vaccine is the best way to reduce chances of getting sick with the flu, lessen spread to others and decrease severity of illness in those who get the flu after vaccination. It should be noted that even those with egg allergies may be able to receive the flu shot. If you have a severe egg allergy, talk to your health care provider, about receiving the shot at a clinic where you can be monitored for a severe allergic reaction.
Will COVID-19 impact flu vaccination rates?
Medical professionals hope that more people than ever get their flu shot this year. However, underserved populations may face barriers such as closed medical offices and reduction in mass vaccination events at community centers, schools and religious centers. It is also possible that particularly vulnerable populations may be too scared to go to the doctor for a flu shot. Fortunately, many pharmacies offer free or discounted flu shots. Just be sure to call your local pharmacy to confirm availability.
Can I get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?
You can get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. Based on what we currently know, getting infected with both at the same time tends to result in a more severe illness, and prolonged hospital stays. You can greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting both at the same time, by getting a flu shot.
Holidays During COVID-19
Along with flu season, we also have the holiday season approaching. This year, during the pandemic and flu season, it is important to have a holiday plan in place. Holiday gatherings should be restricted to small groups, as we need to protect our grandparents and our family members with underlying health conditions.
If your family plans to gather, everyone needs to wash hands frequently and wear masks. If you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms of the flu or COVID-19, contact your health care provider, and skip the holiday gathering.
It is also important to maintain healthy coping skills during the holidays, which is a notoriously stressful time of year for some people. We have seen far higher rates of mental health crises than before the pandemic, so please be sure to take care of yourself. Get outside, and seek mental health help if you’re struggling with loneliness or other signs of depression.
Coping with Pandemic Fatigue
Flu season is no time to let down our guard when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, it is understandable that some people are becoming fatigued, as the result of months of lockdowns, closures, and restrictions on our way of life. But we cannot succumb to this fatigue. We must remain committed to washing our hands, wearing masks, and refraining from touching our faces.
What to Do if You Have Flu or COVID-19 Symptoms
If you have symptoms of the flu or COVID-19, please do not show up at an urgent care, hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office. Call your primary care physician or the local health department for guidance. You will likely be routed to a COVID-19 testing station. In the meantime, until you receive results, please quarantine at home, so you do not transmit the virus to others. Call 911 or call ahead to your local emergency facility if experiencing emergency warning signs for COVID-19 such as difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, bluish lips or face and inability to wake or stay awake.
Staying Healthy During COVID-19 and Flu Season
The best thing you can do this year to prevent the flu or a co-infection is to get your flu shot as soon as possible. In addition to receiving the vaccine, remember to socially distance yourself from others, wash your hands frequently, and wear your mask. It is also smart to keep your overall health top of mind by getting plenty of rest, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly.
Meron Hirpa, MD
Meron Hirpa, MD, is an Internal Medicine Public Health Physician at the Cincinnati Health Department. Dr. Hirpa obtained her medical degree from the University of Florida College of Medicine and completed her residency training in Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. She is board-certified in Internal Medicine and holds specialized training in urban health, global health, quality improvement, and health disparities. Dr. Hirpa treats a broad spectrum of illnesses in adults. She is dedicated to patient-centered care and equity and is passionate about closing the healthcare gap among different groups. Towards that end, she led award-winning diversity and inclusion initiatives in the healthcare space. In addition to treating her patients, Dr. Hirpa conducts theoretical and clinical research and publishes in academic journals. Dr. Hirpa frequently appears in radio and television programs for healthcare commentaries.
The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
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