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Flu or COVID?

Coughing, fever and body aches are all facing greater scrutiny these days as people become increasingly aware of COVID-19’s common symptoms. The health issue becomes more perplexing as patients and healthcare providers try to determine if these symptoms are signs of seasonal influenza (flu) or COVID-19.

“Because COVID and seasonal flu share several of the same symptoms, it’s important that people take the appropriate precautions,” said Alon Ronen, MD, practicing cardiologist, and medical director, Quality and Safety, Northeast Medical Group (NEMG). “If you’re experiencing these symptoms you should start with a call to your doctor. They will be able to guide you to next steps and whether you need to be tested for either disease.”

Dr. Ronen advises patients to avoid showing up at their doctor’s office if they have these symptoms. “We want to minimize the risk of spreading either disease. A phone call or telehealth visit should be the first step,” he said.

Containing COVID

Public health professionals are still learning more about COVID-19, its transmission, symptoms and severity. Patients with confirmed COVID-19 have had mild-to-severe respiratory illness. Symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath may appear two to 14 days after exposure. Other signs and symptoms of COVID-19, different from flu, may include loss of taste or smell.

You can take steps to lower the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19:

  • Wear a cloth face mask when in public
  • Maintain social distancing of least 6 feet from others
  • Practice good hand hygiene by frequently washing hands or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Avoid large crowds

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing a face mask can help stop the spread of COVID-19 by people who unknowingly may have the virus or by those who have the virus yet don’t show symptoms.

Dealing with Influenza

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs. Older people, young children and people with certain chronic conditions (asthma, heart disease and diabetes, among others) are at increased risk for serious complications, including pneumonia. The flu is more likely to appear with rapid onset of illness and high fever. Other signs and symptoms of flu, different from COVID-19, may include body aches, headache or stuffy nose. The best way to prevent flu is by getting a flu vaccine every year.

“I can’t stress the need to get a flu shot strongly enough,” said Karen Brown, MD, medical director, Primary Care, NEMG. “If you haven’t received a shot this year, make an appointment with your doctor or pharmacy or wherever is most convenient for you. It really is your best defense against the flu.”

Beyond the flu shot, Dr. Brown recommends several everyday preventive actions:

  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Wear masks (they protect against flu, too)

These tips can help slow the spread of germs that cause respiratory illnesses, like flu and COVID-19. People infected with flu or COVID are most contagious just prior to onset of symptoms and for the first few days after their symptoms start. It is also possible to infect others in as little as one day before their own symptoms develop. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others with flu viruses for an even longer time.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one are displaying these symptoms, you can learn more about the differences between flu and COVID-19 or find a doctor.