As we enter flu season, there is much concern over the effects on people and communities with flu and COVID-19. One question I hear often, as a nurse and professor of nursing at Northampton Community College, is “how would I know if I have the flu or COVID?” Based on existing literature, to date, symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar as displayed in the following chart:

Fever/Chills  Maybe, maybe notX
Respiratory- Cough &                          CongestionXX
Muscle soreness  XX
Fatigue  XX
Cough/sore throat/runny nose  XX
Vomiting/diarrhea – seen more often in childrenXX
Change or loss of taste and or smellNoX

Some differences seen between the flu and COVID-19 are, knowing when you were exposed to someone who was positive and then developed symptoms, the length of time you are sick, the length of time you are infectious as well as treatment. As you can see, by symptoms alone, it’s difficult to tell the difference. If you suspect you have been exposed to COVID-19 and are having any of the above symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.  

From what we know today, the incubation time (time the person is infected until symptoms appear) for the flu is 3 days. COVID-19 incubation is 5-6 days, and can be up to 14 days, (Center for Disease Control). Commonly, the flu will last from 1-2 weeks, COVID-19 infection may last 2-6 weeks with unresolved and irreversible symptoms such as stroke lasting longer. Knowing when you might have been exposed to someone who was ill and for how long could be valuable information for your healthcare provider.

Because of the similarity in symptoms and need to help stop the community spread of disease, testing and contact tracing is paramount. A simple non-invasive test using a nasal swab can tell whether at this moment in time, you have the flu, COVID-19 or are positive or negative for both. Yes, you can be positive for both flu and COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization, while the symptoms appear similar for flu and COVID-19, to date, we know that the severity, critical infections and deaths are higher for COVID-19 than the seasonal flu.

It’s encouraging to know most people will do well and recover at home from either the flu or COVID-19. If COVID-19 is suspected, look for these emergency warning signs and seek medical care immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face

It is important to note that children, the elderly, those with respiratory conditions and people who are immunosuppressed may respond differently to any infection when exposed. Contact your healthcare provider with any concerns.

Prevention is key for both flu as well as COVID-19. To stay healthy and help to prevent the spread of these two serious infections follow the recommended guidelines:

  • Stay home when ill
  • Wear a mask when in public
  • Practice physical distancing (6 feet)
  • Wash your hands often
  • Cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Avoid crowds

Presently, at the time of this blog, there is no vaccine to prevent or minimize a person’s response to COVID-19, however, a vaccine does exist for the flu. Follow the science and get your flu shot today!