Every year as the summer winds down and school resumes, we all know that flu season is just around the corner. But once again, this year’s annual flu season will start up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You’ve probably heard that COVID-19 and the flu share a lot of the same symptoms. And maybe you’re even feeling a little under the weather right now. So, how do you tell the difference between COVID-19 symptoms and flu symptoms? The short answer is: It can be tricky. But we’re here to help.
The only way to truly diagnose whether you have the flu or COVID-19 is through testing. If you received your annual flu shot, it’s still possible for you to get the flu. Similarly, if you’ve been full vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s possible for you to get the virus – but chances are very low.
Below, we provide an overview of both viruses, similarities and differences between symptoms, when you should get care, and more.
COVID-19 vs. the flu: What’s the difference between these two viruses?
The flu and COVID-19 are both highly contagious respiratory illnesses, but they’re caused by different viruses.
The flu is caused by influenza viruses – usually Influenza A or Influenza B viruses. These are the viruses we experience during our annual flu season.
There are a lot of influenza viruses out there – and flu vaccines have been around since the mid-1940s. Each year, specific flu vaccines are recommended to fight the strains of influenza that research indicates will be the most common that season. So, when you make a flu shot appointment this year, you’ll get the vaccine chosen for the 2021-2022 flu season.
COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Our bodies had never experienced this type of virus before the beginning of the pandemic – which means our bodies hadn’t had a chance to build antibodies to fight it.
In December 2020, the first COVID-19 vaccine dose was given. Now, vaccines are readily available for people ages 12 and up. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and incredibly effective at preventing infection, as well as reducing the severity of symptoms or the need for hospitalization if someone does get sick after being fully vaccinated.
Can the flu turn into COVID-19?
No. The flu cannot turn into COVID-19. And COVID-19 cannot turn into the flu. Again, these two illnesses are caused by different viruses.
Is it possible to have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?
Yes. It is possible to be infected with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
How are symptoms of COVID-19 different from the flu?
First, let’s talk about the similarities between COVID-19 symptoms and flu symptoms
All respiratory illnesses share some similar symptoms. That’s because your respiratory system is in charge of helping you breathe, and includes your airways, lungs and blood vessels. So, when bacteria or viruses get in, the whole system can be affected and cause similar symptoms.
The most prominent symptoms that COVID-19 and the flu have in common include:
- Fever of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit
- Muscle pain and body aches
- Fatigue (extreme tiredness or lack of energy) and weakness
- Nausea or vomiting (more common in children than adults)
- Diarrhea (more common in children than adults)
Because symptoms are so similar – and can vary from person to person – the only way to confirm whether it’s COVID-19 or influenza is through testing. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, don’t delay getting care.
We offer virtual care options that make it easy and convenient for you to get a diagnosis and treatment plan – or, help you determine what kind of testing you may need. When it comes to COVID-19 testing, HealthPartners has several drive-up testing sites across the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. You can make an appointment for a COVID-19 test online.
Now, let’s look at how COVID-19 and flu symptoms are different
While there are many similarities between COVID-19 and flu symptoms, there are some specific differences that have been identified so far, including:
- Symptom onset – The flu comes on suddenly. Usually flu symptoms appear anywhere from one to four days after infection. COVID-19 symptoms can be more gradual. While COVID-19 symptoms can develop as early as two days after you’re infected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says five days after infection is typical. Plus, it’s possible to be infected with COVID-19 but not show any symptoms for up to 14 days. (And some people may not have any symptoms at all.)
- Cough type and severity – The flu usually causes a mild, dry cough, whereas COVID-19 cough symptoms are more severe. When you have COVID-19, coughs are usually dry, persistent and can leave you short of breath.
- Unique symptoms – COVID-19 symptoms that don’t typically overlap or are less common with the flu include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Repeated shaking with chills
- New and sudden loss of taste or smell
Do COVID-19 or flu symptoms differ between adults and children? Men and women?
We’re often asked if flu symptoms in kids are different than in adults. And this has become one of the most common questions about COVID-19.
Generally speaking, COVID-19 symptoms and influenza symptoms are the same for men and women – young or old. However, those with severe underlying medical conditions seem to be at higher risk for more serious complications. Also, there are a couple things to note when it comes to COVID-19 symptoms in children.
Gastrointestinal issues are more common in kids
For both COVID-19 and the flu, when vomiting, nausea or diarrhea happens, it’s usually more common in children than adults. This also means that the risk of dehydration can increase. So, parents should watch for signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, no tears when crying, or no urine for 8 or more hours.
COVID-19 has been linked to another condition in kids
When it comes to COVID-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date. However, some children have developed what’s called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C). MIS-C is a condition where different parts of the body (not just the respiratory system) become inflamed. So, in addition to common COVID-19 and flu symptoms like fever, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea, other symptoms can include abdominal pain, neck pain, rash and bloodshot eyes.
Right now, information on this condition is limited, but the CDC is working closely with local health departments to learn more. If you want to learn more about the condition, we encourage you to visit the CDC’s MIS-C information page.
What about common cold symptoms vs. flu or COVID-19 symptoms? How are they different?
You may be thinking: Is it a cold or the flu? Is it a cold or COVID-19? How do I tell the difference?
One of the main differences in common cold symptoms compared to COVID-19 or the flu, is the type of cough. Usually, cold coughs produce phlegm or mucus, not a dry cough like COVID-19 or the flu.
In addition, symptoms like fever, muscle aches and extreme fatigue are pretty uncommon when you have a cold. You may get a little sore or feel a little more tired, but it’s much milder and goes away more quickly.
If you think you have the flu or COVID-19, testing is the only way to confirm your instincts. To get started, schedule a video visit or start a Virtuwell visit. This can help us understand your symptoms and determine if COVID-19 testing or influenza testing is the right next step.
Comparing COVID-19 and flu symptoms
We’ve gone through the symptom similarities and differences between the flu and COVID-19. But here’s how they compare side-by-side.
What to do if you have COVID-like or flu-like symptoms
COVID-19 and influenza are highly contagious viruses. If you’re experiencing any symptoms or you’re not sure if your symptoms are a match, don’t worry. Here are a few steps you can take:
Stay home – especially if you have a fever
In general, it’s recommended that you stay home if you have a fever and for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away (without the help of medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen). If you don’t have a fever, but you have other COVID-19 or flu symptoms, speak with your doctor before heading out.
Call one of our care lines for advice
Our care lines allow you to talk directly with a nurse 24/7, 365 days a year completely free of charge. They can help you decide if it’s time to see a doctor, as well as provide helpful home remedy advice. To get in touch, call the HealthPartners CareLine℠ at 800-551-0859 or the Park Nicollet Nurse Line at 952-993-4665.
Get treatment and care virtually
Whether you’re stuck at home with a fever or you aren’t ready to leave your house just yet, there are a couple ways to get quality virtual care that fits your preferences.
Make a video visit appointment for face-to-face care from a doctor or nurse practitioner. With video visits, your doctor will listen to your symptoms, answer questions and work with you to create a tailored treatment plan if needed. For example, your doctor may prescribe antivirals to treat the flu.
Start a virtual visit anytime, anyplace through Virtuwell. With Virtuwell, no appointment is necessary – and treatment is available 24/7. Getting started is easy. We’ll ask you a few questions, and you’ll get your diagnosis and treatment plan from a board-certified nurse practitioner.
No matter which option you choose, if your doctor or nurse recommends COVID-19 testing or influenza testing as part of your treatment plan, they’ll help you schedule a drive-up test at a location that works best for you.
Try to relax and take care of yourself
If you’re not feeling well or you’ve been officially diagnosed with an illness, try to get lots of rest and stay hydrated. Also, talk with your doctor about which over-the-counter medications they recommend to help reduce your fever, aches and pains.
Go to the emergency room if serious symptoms arise
Both the flu and COVID-19 can have serious complications. Go to your nearest emergency room if you or your child is experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing
- Flu-like symptoms that improved but then returned worse
- Chest pain or pressure
- Sudden dizziness or confusion
- Severe or persistent vomiting
And, more specifically for children, go to the emergency room if your child:
- Is less than 3 months old and has a fever above 100.4° Fahrenheit
- Is between 3 months old and 3 years old, has a fever above 100.4° Fahrenheit, and is showing signs of dehydration (e.g. dry eyes or mouth, hasn’t urinated in several hours)
- Has a fever with rash
- Has skin or lips that have turned gray or blue
- Is extremely irritable
- Is not eating or drinking
- Is not waking up or interacting with you
What one thing you can do to stay as healthy as possible? Get your annual flu shot.
The best way to protect yourself and others from influenza and COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated for both viruses.
When you get a flu shot, you’re up to 60% less likely to get the flu, according to the CDC. And studies also show that even if you do get sick, your flu symptoms will be less severe and you’re less likely to need hospital care to recover.
When it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations, data suggest all currently authorized vaccines are effective in preventing illness from COVID-19, with the greatest protection coming against severe illness, hospitalization and death.
It’s also important to know it’s possible to test positive for the flu and COVID-19, as well as other respiratory conditions, at the same time. This can increase your risk of severe complications.