COVID-19 vs. flu: How to tell the difference, and what to do if you get sick
Although your healthcare clinician may be able to help you figure out which illness you have, the best thing to do is avoid getting sick in the first place
By Nuvance Health Infectious Disease Specialists
- COVID-19 and flu symptoms are similar, so it may be difficult to tell which virus you have if you get sick during the upcoming flu season.
- The best thing to do is to take steps to prevent becoming ill, including social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands, and getting a flu shot.
- If you do get sick, stay home, avoid contact with others in your household, and contact your healthcare clinician for advice on your next steps.
As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also in flu season. COVID-19 and flu symptoms are similar, so it may be difficult to tell which virus you have if you get sick during the fall and winter months.
Here are questions you can ask yourself to determine whether COVID-19 or flu caused your symptoms, as well as some advice on what you should do if you get sick.
What are my symptoms?
Many symptoms of COVID-19 and flu overlap, which could cause considerable concern and anxiety if you or a loved one become sick. Common symptoms of both illnesses include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or aches
- Vomiting or diarrhea (more common among children)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one symptom of COVID-19 that’s not usually present with flu is a new loss of taste or smell.
Did I get a flu shot?
CDC research estimates that the flu vaccine usually reduces the risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent in the overall population. Getting the flu shot doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get the flu, but it does decrease your chances of infection and could prevent complications if you do get sick.
Lowering your chances of getting flu is even more important during the pandemic, when an already-weak immune system or flu complications could make you or your loved ones more vulnerable to COVID-19.
If you haven’t already gotten your flu shot, contact your Nuvance Health healthcare clinician. Nuvance Health facilities have implemented safety measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, so there’s no reason to put off your flu shot due to COVID-19 concerns. Flu shots may also be available at your local retail clinic. For more information about the safeguards in place at Nuvance Health, visit nuvancehealth.org/safecare.
Have I been exposed to anyone with a positive test?
Testing is available to diagnose COVID-19 and flu. If you had close contact with someone who had a positive test for one of these viruses, it increases your chances of contracting the same illness.
How long did it take for symptoms to develop after exposure?
COVID-19 has a longer incubation period than flu. Flu symptoms typically develop 1 to 4 days after infection, while COVID-19 symptoms can develop anywhere from 2 to 14 days after infection. This information could be helpful if you have a known exposure to someone with a positive test for one of these illnesses.
What should I do if I get sick?
If you come down with symptoms and aren’t sure whether they are caused by COVID-19 or flu, the first thing you should do is quarantine yourself. Stay home and avoid contact with other members of your household.
If you’re concerned about your symptoms or if you’re at high risk of complications from COVID-19 or flu, you should contact your healthcare clinician. Nuvance Health patients may have the option to schedule a Virtual Visit, which is a safe and secure way to connect with your Nuvance Health clinician from your home. For more information, to schedule an appointment, or to find a clinician, visit nuvancehealth.org/virtualvisits.
Tell your healthcare clinician about your symptoms, whether you had a flu shot, if you’ve been exposed to anyone who is ill, and how long it took your symptoms to develop. Your healthcare clinician may be able to make a diagnosis based on your exam and health history, but they may also recommend that you get tested to determine the cause of your symptoms. For more information about COVID-19 testing at Nuvance Health, visit our websites: COVID-19 Testing in Connecticut and COVID-19 Testing in New York and Sharon, Connecticut.
If you have emergency symptoms — such as difficulty breathing, chest pressure, confusion, inability to wake up or stay awake, or blue lips or face — call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. Tell the 911 dispatcher or emergency department operator about your symptoms so they can take the necessary precautions to protect you and others.
What can I do to protect my family and me and reduce the risk of possible exposure to COVID-19 and flu?
Just as COVID-19 and flu have similar symptoms, the same prevention measures apply for both viruses.
Limit possible exposure to COVID-19 and flu: The best way to reduce the risk of getting a contagious disease is to limit possible exposure to it. Limit group gatherings and practice social distancing, which means staying at least six feet away from non-household members when in public.
Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick. The CDC defines close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. This includes caring for, visiting or sitting within six feet of an infected person, being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person, or touching used tissues with a bare hand.
Practice proper hygiene: We know COVID-19 and flu both primarily spread from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, so it’s important that we all practice proper hygiene:
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with the bend of your arm
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds at a time. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Avoid touching your face (eyes, nose, mouth) with your hands
- When greeting people, avoid shaking hands, hugging, or kissing
- Regularly clean often-touched surfaces with disinfectant. These types of surfaces include tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
Wear a face mask when out in public: The CDC recommends wearing a face mask in public settings, such as the grocery store, to slow the spread of COVID-19. This is also an effective way to slow the spread of other contagious diseases too, such as flu. You should not wear a mask with a valve because these only offer protection for those wearing the mask and not others.
The bottom line: COVID-19 and flu symptoms are similar, so it may be difficult to tell which virus you have if you get sick during the winter months. The best thing to do is to take steps to prevent becoming ill, including social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands, and getting a flu shot. If you do get sick, stay home, avoid contact with others in your household, and contact your healthcare clinician for advice on your next steps.