The flu or COVID-19: Can you tell the difference?

By Regence
December 08, 2020
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This winter, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues during the normal flu season, how will you know which virus you may have should you start feeling sick?

“It’s hard to tell the two of them apart,” says Dr. Drew Oliveira, senior executive medical director for Regence. “Both can cause a fever, a cough, a sore throat and even give you a runny nose.”

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COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms, which may cause anxiety if you or a family member become sick. And with the surge in COVID-19 cases, it’s possible for symptoms to be considered COVID-19 until a test proves otherwise.

“While the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 may be the same, treating them is very different,” says Dr. Oliveira. “With the flu, there’re antiviral treatments like Tamiflu, which can lessen symptoms. With COVID-19, you may take acetaminophen for mild symptoms, but you’ll need to self-isolate unless there’s a need to seek medical care. It’s important to understand what you have so you know when you can safely be around others.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one symptom of COVID-19 that’s not usually present with flu is a change in or loss of taste or smell. Another key difference is the length of time someone can be contagious or show symptoms.

“With the flu, a person usually experiences symptoms one-to-four days after contracting the virus, but for COVID-19, it could be as late as 14 days after infection,” says Dr. Oliveira. “The timeframe is much wider, which is concerning because the novel coronavirus spreads more easily than the flu.”

In recognition of National Influenza Vaccination Week, Dr. Oliveira recently joined the television station Q13 Fox to talk about the importance of getting your flu vaccine to help prevent a "twin pandemic" as COVID-19 continues. The full Healthy Living segment is available online.  

Dr. Oliveira Q13 Fox flu vaccine

A new reason to get your flu shot

If you haven’t already received your flu shot, now is a good time to get one. One study suggests hospital workers who received their flu shot were less likely to develop COVID-19 than those who did not.

Does this mean a flu shot can protect you from COVID-19?

“Not quite,” Dr. Oliveira says. “But it does lower your chance of getting infected with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time and can help minimize the spread of the flu virus.” Regence covers flu shots at 100% for most members.

Here’s what to do if you’re feeling sick

If you experience symptoms and aren’t sure whether they are caused by the flu or COVID-19, the first thing you should do is stay home and avoid contact with other members of your household. Regence offers an exposure decision guide as well as an online symptom checker with additional COVID-19 information. If you are concerned about your symptoms, call your doctor or use virtual care—which you can access 24/7 from the comfort of home. Your health care provider can help you determine what to do if you need to get a COVID-19 test. If you’re a Regence member, sign in or create an online account to see your virtual care options.