Experts Explain How to Tell the Difference Between Covid and the Flu
With so many overlapping symptoms and multiple viruses floating around, it can be tough to tell what’s making you ill: the flu vs. Covid. Health experts predict that winter 2022/2023 could see a Covid-19 surge, as new variants circulate and cases are rising in Europe and Asia. Along with that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports early increases in flu activity.
So, what should you do if you start feeling lousy and aren’t sure what’s causing it?
“The first thing you should do when you get sick with any type of illness is to stay away from other people,” Brian Labus, Ph.D., MPH, REHS, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Men’s Health.
“We got good at this during Covid, and we should continue this behavior as other types of respiratory diseases spread,” he says. “If you have to go out, wear a mask to help protect others.”
It’s understandable that every cough, sneeze, or fever makes you wonder if you have Covid, the flu, or even a cold, says Evelyn Darius, M.D., a physician with PlushCare. She recommends getting tested for Covid-19 first, since the virus remains prevalent.
Also pay close attention to your symptoms, she urges. If you have shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, upper abdominal pain, sudden dizziness or confusion, inability to awaken or stay awake, fainting, weakness, or pale gray or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, go to the hospital.
“These are emergency symptoms and could be life-threatening,” Darius says.
Since Covid and the flu will continue to circulate, here’s a refresher on the symptoms of each illness, when you should get tested, and how to protect yourself during Covid, cold, and flu season.
Covid vs. Flu Symptoms
Flu and Covid symptoms overlap so much that it’s often difficult to figure out what you have based solely on how you feel, Labus says. One distinguishing sign is that colds tend to be milder than the flu and Covid, and are less likely to cause fever and body aches.
Symptoms of a viral respiratory illness—whether it’s the flu or Covid-19—can include the following, Darius says:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Gastrointestinal symptoms, like vomiting and diarrhea
Some Covid variants (but not all) have caused loss of taste or smell, which is rarely seen with the flu, Labus says.
Flu symptoms also typically appear more suddenly, while Covid symptoms come on more slowly, Darius says. Most people recover from the flu and Covid within a few days or a week or two.
Both flu and Covid can cause serious complications, especially for people over age 65, or who are immunosuppressed or have chronic conditions, Darius says. These include pneumonia, sepsis, and inflammation of the brain, heart, or muscle tissues.
She says Covid can lead to “unique complications” that scientists are still understanding, like skin rashes, respiratory failure, heart conditions like arrhythmias, blood clots, and excessive immune response.
When to Get Tested for Covid or the Flu
So, how can you really know if you have Covid vs. the flu? Get tested, health experts say.
“As the rates of different diseases change in the community, so does the usefulness of our tests,” Labus says. Covid tests are easily accessible at pharmacies and retailers nationwide, and are especially useful if you start feeling sick after a known Covid exposure, he adds.
“I recommend that everyone with cold symptoms be tested for Covid-19 and/or the flu,” Darius says. “Your test results will help determine the next steps of any treatment or care plan.”
At-home flu tests are also available, and there are some tests that check for both Covid and the flu. You can also ask your doctor about getting a flu test.
How to Protect Yourself in Flu and Covid Season
Whenever you’re feeling under the weather, it’s best to avoid contact with others, Labus says. The CDC recommends isolating yourself and staying home for five days if you test positive for Covid.
Here are some other ways to protect yourself from Covid and the flu:
It’s the best protection against both viruses, Labus says. “You can get both your flu shot and Covid booster at the same time, and getting vaccinated early in the fall will protect you before the flu really takes off.” Updated Covid boosters targeting the omicron variant are available now to anyone age 5 and up.
Check your community spread
Pay close attention to the Covid and flu cases in your area by checking with your local health department. Labus says this data might help you identify which illness you’re more likely to have and which test is most necessary. “If flu is circulating at a high level and COVID isn’t, an at-home COVID test isn’t as meaningful,” he adds.
Avoid close contact with others
Social distancing and avoiding large gatherings can keep illnesses from spreading. “The more time we spend in close contact with others, the greater our risk of getting sick,” Labus says. Spread out when you’re in rooms with others and try to stay in well-ventilated areas. Also, wear masks when you’re in close quarters—and any time you’re not feeling well.
Practice good hygiene
By now, you’ve heard how crucial it is to wash your hands and cover your mouth when you sneeze and cough. Well, it’s worth emphasizing again! Darius says regularly washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, covering your mouth, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and not touching your face, eyes, and mouth will reduce the spread of Covid and the flu.
Monitor your symptoms
Seek medical care if you have trouble breathing, chest pain, or any other problems that concern you—or if your symptoms don’t seem to be going away.
People with underlying health conditions, who may be at greater risk for severe disease, should contact their doctor if they get sick to see if they need a prescription to reduce their risk for hospitalization, Labus says. “As these drugs are most useful soon after you begin to get sick, you should talk to your doctor before you get sick and have a plan for what to do at the first signs of illness.”
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.
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