So you have a cold. Fever. Sore throat.
Coronavirus? Or influenza?
As we head into flu season, it can be hard to tell the difference — even for doctors.
“Both flu and COVID can cause headaches, they can both result in a cough, you can get fatigue and body aches,” said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, an infectious disease specialist for McLaren Health in Flint. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to tell the difference just by looking at someone, and people are going to need lab tests to help figure it out.
“To make it even more confusing, just because you have flu doesn’t mean you can’t have COVID,” Cunningham said. “Last March, some of the studies were saying up to 10% or 15% of people were infected with more than one virus at the same time.”
It’s easier to differentiate between allergies and coronavirus, he said. “Allergies typically involve a runny nose. You should not have a fever; you really should not have any body aches, and more importantly, if you take allergy medicine, there should be some improvement in your symptoms.”
The biggest telltale symptom that indicates coronavirus: Loss of taste and smell, which doesn’t occur with flu or allergies, said Dr. Kristopher Brenner, a primary care physician with Spectrum Health.
“When people report an abrupt loss of smell, when they can’t taste, you can bet dollars that it’s most likely coronavirus,” he said. “Another thing with coronavirus is diarrhea sometimes, which is a telltale sign.”
And while both flu and coronavirus are respiratory ailments, coronavirus is much more likely to result in wheezing and shortness of breath, Brenner said.
Beyond the symptoms themselves, there are some other important differences between flu and COVID-19, Brenner added.
For instance, people typically come down with flu symptoms within a few days of exposure to the virus, while it may take up to two weeks for COVID-19.
Coronavirus also is much more contagious than flu and has a higher mortality rate, which is why it’s important for people with symptoms to get tested so that they can identify others who might have been exposed.
If people think they have flu or coronavirus, they may want to have a virtual doctor appointment vs. going to a doctor’s office or urgent care where they could expose others, doctors say. Brenner noted that Spectrum’s telemed service allows patients to get lab orders for testing without seeing a doctor in person.
The concerns about the convergence of flu season with the pandemic has doctors and health departments pushing hard for people to get flu vaccines this year.
“To those who have been on the fence in the past about a flu shot, you really need to consider it this year,” Brenner said.
One potential benefit of the pandemic: The strategies that people are using to prevent coronavirus, such as wearing a mask, social distancing and hand hygiene, could result in a fairly light flu season, experts say. That’s particularly true if more people get flu vaccines.
“Wearing a mask protects us not just from COVID but a lot of other respiratory viral illnesses,” said Dr. Trini Mathew, an infectious disease specialist for Beaumont Health in metro Detroit. “Same thing with hand hygiene. So you’re getting more bang for your buck now doing all those prevention efforts.”
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