Flu vs COVID-19: Prepping for Flu Season in a Pandemic
Learn to tell the difference between a common cold, the flu, and COVID-19—and stay as safe as possible
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Shirin Peters, M.D., an internal medicine specialist, and founder, medical director, and primary care physician at Bethany Medical Clinic of New York, agrees that the flu shot is essential this year, “as it will prevent my patients from needing to seek care in a busy urgent care or emergency room, where they may be exposed to COVID-19 and other infectious illness.”
Is it a cold, flu, or COVID-19?
The symptoms for all three illnesses are similar, according to doctors including Myron Rolle, M.D., a resident at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General.
“Symptoms of the flu and cold are similar and often include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle and body aches, headaches, and fatigue, but the flu is more intense and comes on more abruptly,” Dr. Rolle said. These symptoms are so similar to those of COVID-19, that it’s often hard to make a diagnosis.
One distinguishing symptom of COVID-19 is anosmia—loss of smell (and often taste as well). Not all COVID-infected patients get anosmia and because the flu can cause a stuffy nose, it may still be a symptom that causes confusion.
Dr. Rolle recommends getting tested for COVID-19 if any flu-like symptoms occur in adults or kids. And don’t worry—tests will be available, Dr. Nachman says. “Many doctors are now starting to get rapid testing abilities in their offices, similar to rapid testing for flu and strep throat.” She believes that the frequency and ease of COVID tests will only increase. “The more resources to do this that are available, the more doctors are going to feel comfortable with testing.”
Take all COVID-19 precautions during flu season
As flu and cold season approaches, it’s more important than ever to take precautions such as washing your hands, wearing face masks, and social distancing. “The good news is that the same measures that help prevent the spread of COVID-19 can also help prevent the spread of the cold and flu viruses,” says Travis Stork, M.D., an emergency medicine physician.
And if you or your child get sick, doctors recommend rest, hydration, and a good diet to help your immune system. “Over the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with body aches and fever,” Dr. Stork says. “Eat a wholesome diet with plant-based foods that are loaded with antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables which will help your immune system fight off the infection. Get plenty of rest and if you get concerned, call your doctor.”