Is It the Flu or the Coronavirus? Here’s How to Tell the Difference

Is It the Flu or the Coronavirus? Here’s How to Tell the Difference

With influenza season in full swing, many people are worried that it may be difficult to discern between the coronavirus or the flu if they fall ill. This is a valid concern — several symptoms of the two illnesses are so similar that it wouldn't be possible to know for sure without a test or two. To make matters worse, it is possible to get infected by both at the same time. Here's a guide to help you better understand the symptoms of the two sicknesses.

First Things First — Get a Flu Shot

On the bright side, it's not clear yet if the United States will experience a substantial flu season this year. Scientists usually use Southern Hemisphere flu activity as a predictor of what's to come in America. During this region's winter, flu cases were 99% below normal.

Epidemiologists attribute this reduction to the fact that South Africans, Australians, Chileans, and other inhabitants of the world's southern half were wearing face mask protection, practicing social distancing, and washing their hands frequently. All of these coronavirus precautions also prevent influenza transmission. And because there aren't many flights between the US and the Southern Hemisphere right now, the opportunity for the usual four seasonal flu seasons to "reseed" in America is smaller.

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Despite all of this good news, it's still better to practice prudence. Experts are urging all Americans to get flu shots. Before the COVID-19 lockdown occurred, last year's flu season was on its way to becoming one of the worst in recent records. If you get the flu shot and then still end up catching the flu, experts say that you'll be much less at risk of going to the hospital or dying.

Flu shots were made in extra large batches and distributed to pharmacies and medical facilities early this year to help combat the potential of a "twindemic." If you need help finding a flu shot, try vaccinefinder.org.

How To Tell if It's a Cold or the Flu

At least 100 viruses can cause the common cold. Only four cause seasonal influenza. It's common for people who catch colds to assume they have the flu. But experts have an easy way to tell the difference: Do you feel like you've been hit by a truck? A bad case of the flu comes with fever, headaches, and body aches that are generally much worse than the symptoms of common cold viruses.

Besides fever, headaches, and body aches, other symptoms of the flu include a sore throat, stuffed sinuses, a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing. Some people, usually children, also experience vomiting and diarrhea. For severe cases, pneumonia is the most common complication. Shortness of breath, unusually rapid breathing, and in some cases, chest or back pain are typical signs of flu pneumonia.

Common Coronavirus Symptoms To Watch Out For

Discerning between the coronavirus and the flu is difficult because they share many similar symptoms. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are high fever (sometimes accompanied by chills), fatigue, and a dry cough. One coronavirus symptom that really differentiates itself from other illnesses is when victims lose their sense of smell. One study found that this occurs in 87% of patients. When this occurs, you can't even smell strong odors such as coffee or onions.

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Less common COVID-19 symptoms include congestion, runny nose, sore throat, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and feeling out of breath when you exert yourself. Some coronavirus victims also experience itchy, red eyes or get blisters on their fingers or toes (now known as COVID toes). If you have serious difficulty breathing, feel pressure or pain in your chest, have a blue face or lips, answer simple questions incoherently, or lose consciousness, seek medical attention immediately — all of these are considered more dangerous symptoms of severe coronavirus cases.

As if COVID-19 wasn't scary enough, it can also cause blood clots that lead to lung, brain, and heart damage. Doctors believe that they've even identified long-term heart damage in mild or asymptomatic cases of the coronavirus. Another unusual but notable occurrence with COVID-19 is that people can develop pneumonia without even realizing how ill they are. Doctors aren't sure how this happens yet, but the leading theory is that lung air sacs are damaged in a way that doesn't cause carbon dioxide buildup, which is what causes that horrible out-of-breath sensation.

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If you're concerned about catching COVID-19 or have loved ones at risk of severe cases, consider buying a pulse oximeter. This is a fingertip device that measures your blood-oxygen levels. If you get multiple readings under 92%, call a doctor. Detecting pneumonia earlier can lead to better outcomes.

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

COVID-19 symptoms can begin surfacing two to 14 days after exposure. For most people, it begins five to seven days after exposure. If you think you have been exposed to the coronavirus, it's imperative that you warn others around you and isolate yourself as soon as possible — especially if you're in the company of people who are older or medically fragile.

Generally speaking, doctors will begin treating an illness rather than wait for test results if one particular disease is sweeping through a local region and the patient is exhibiting symptoms that align with that sickness. So unless both the flu and COVID-19 are being heavily transmitted in your area, don't be surprised if your doctor doesn't recommend a test.

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We live in scary, uncertain times. A coronavirus vaccine could still take many more months, if not years, to make. So please practice preventive measures. Get your flut shot. Be diligent in wearing face mask protection. Wash your hands frequently. And of course, social distance from anyone that doesn't live in the same house as you. Prevention is the best medicine.

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