Influenza, commonly referred to as flu, is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system–your nose, throat, and lungs. Influenza should not be confused with stomach flu viruses that can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Most of the time, particularly in cases involving individuals under the age of 65 who have no underlying health conditions, influenza resolves on its own. Sometimes, however, flu complications can be severe and even result in death. People at higher risk for developing complications are:
- Adults over the age of 65
- Young children under the age of 5, but especially under the age of 6 months
- People with weakened immune systems
- Pregnant women and women up to two weeks after delivery
- People with chronic illnesses
- Obese people
Getting annual influenza and COVID-19 vaccines is critical for your health and the health of those around you, especially during this pandemic period of COVID-19. And because influenza and coronavirus diseases can cause similar symptoms, it is important to know which illness you have contracted.
Receiving the annual flu vaccination can reduce symptoms that might be confused with COVID-19 symptoms. The vaccine can be given as a shot or as a nasal spray. Getting the COVID-19 vaccination can potentially save your life or reduce severe symptoms of COVID-19.
Each year’s seasonal flu vaccine provides protection from the 3-4 influenza viruses that researchers anticipated would be the most common during that year’s flu season. The influenza vaccination is not 100% effective. Some years scientists miscalculate exactly which flu virus will dominate that year. However, there is no question that the influenza vaccine is still your best defense against the flu.
Other steps to protect yourself against the flu include:
- Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching your face
- Keep frequently touched surfaces clean
- Avoid sick individuals and stay home at least 24 hours after your fever is gone
- Wear a mask in large crowds where the flu virus is known to be prevalent
The difference between flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms
Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory diseases caused by viruses. The flu is caused by influenza A and B viruses, while COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These viruses spread in similar ways and have similar symptoms. And both diseases sometimes present no symptoms, just mild symptoms, or severe symptoms. Because of these similarities, diagnosing which condition you have based on symptoms alone is challenging. You might even have both diseases at the same time. This is one of the reasons that COVID testing is so critical.
There are sometimes differences, however, between flu symptoms and COVID symptoms, as noted in this chart below from the Mayo Clinic.
|Symptom or sign||COVID-19||Flu|
|Runny or stuffy nose||Usually||Usually|
|Fever||Usually||Usually — not always|
|Nausea or vomiting||Sometimes||Sometimes (more common in children)|
|Diarrhea||Sometimes||Sometimes (more common in children)|
|Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
|New loss of taste or smell||Usually (early — often without a runny or stuffy nose)||Rarely|
Note that COVID-19 symptoms generally appear 2-14 days after exposure to SARS-CoV-2, whereas flu symptoms usually appear about 1-4 days after exposure to an influenza virus.
COVID-19 can cause a much more serious illness in some people than influenza COVID-19 can also cause different complications than influenza, such as blood clots and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.
The difference between a common cold (with just a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat) and influenza are the following:
- A cold tends to develop slowly, while the flu tends to come on suddenly
- Influenza tends to hit the body much harder, causing more severe symptoms
- Fever, aching muscles, chills, and sweats are common symptoms of the flu
- Headache, persistent cough, stuffy nose, sore throat are common with influenza
- Shortness of breath, fatigue, eye pain can accompany influenza
- Vomiting and diarrhea, though more common in children, often result
The flu will usually go away in about a week or two if you are young and healthy. However, children and adults at high risk may develop complications, including:
- Asthma flare-ups
- Heart problems
- Ear infections
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome
Pneumonia is one of the most severe complications from influenza and can be deadly, especially in older populations.
Call your provider if bed rest, liquids, and medications are not alleviating your flu symptoms. Your provider can prescribe antiviral drugs that may reduce the length of your illness and prevent serious complications.
If you have emergency symptoms with the flu, get medical care right away. For adults, these symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Ongoing dizziness
- Severe weakness or muscle pain
Here at Catawba Valley Healthcare, we are committed to giving you the individualized care you deserve. Call us with worrisome flu symptoms at (828) 695-5900.