Learn the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and influenza and ways to keep your family healthy
Every fall and winter, parents prepare for flu season and take steps to protect their family. This year, COVID-19 is causing unique concerns and questions, including how to tell the difference between the two respiratory illnesses.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of influenza (flu) and COVID-19 are similar, and there is no simple way to tell them apart. However, it can be helpful to understand the differences between the viruses and how they can affect children. Learn more about navigating flu season during the coronavirus pandemic and ways to keep your family healthy.
How is coronavirus different from flu?
Both COVID-19 and flu are respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Flu is caused by influenza viruses, while COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that had not been previously identified in humans.
Because COVID-19 is a new disease, researchers and health care providers are still learning how it affects people. Unlike flu, there is currently no approved vaccine to help protect against COVID-19. However, researchers are working on developing one.
What are coronavirus symptoms vs flu symptoms?
Symptoms of flu and COVID-19 can vary, ranging from mild or no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common symptoms between flu and COVID-19 can include:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Possible vomiting and diarrhea, which may be more common in children than adults
One symptom of COVID-19 that is different from flu is that some people with COVID-19 may experience a change in or loss of taste or smell.
Preeti Sharma, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Heath℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, also reminds parents to watch for a common tell-tale sign of flu. "One thing to remember about influenza is that that flu often comes on very quickly," she says. "So you might be feeling great, and then all of a sudden experience fever, body aches and chills. But truly, it's hard to distinguish between the viruses because there's still a lot about COVID-19 that we don't yet know."
Flu and COVID-19 share similar signs and symptoms, and it can be hard to diagnose based on symptoms alone. It is also possible to have both COVID-19 and flu at the same time. If you are concerned about your child's symptoms, contact your health care provider for guidance. Testing may be needed to determine whether it's flu or COVID-19.
"It's important to keep track of symptoms in yourself and your child," Dr. Sharma says. "If symptoms present, talk to your health care provider and let their guidance move you towards a plan."
How do flu and COVID-19 spread?
Both flu and COVID-19 spread primarily from person-to-person through droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking. It also may be possible to contract the viruses through physical contact or by touching surfaces or objects that have the virus on it and then touching your face.
It's possible for a person to spread both flu and COVID-19 before they experience any symptoms. However, people with COVID-19 may remain contagious for a longer period than those with the flu. How long someone can spread COVID-19 is still being learned.
While flu and COVID-19 may spread in similar ways, the CDC states that COVID-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu.
Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, urges individuals to take precautions to not only protect themselves, but also their family members against the spread of COVID-19 and flu.
"The greatest risk of getting COVID-19 or the flu is having a household contact with COVID-19 or flu," explains Dr. Kahn. "Therefore, it is all the more important to continue to be vigilant when it comes to good health practices, such as mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing. In the case of flu, a vaccination not only protects the individual but also their household members. This is particularly important for individuals who live with someone who falls into a risk category or is not eligible to receive the flu vaccine."
Who is at highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and flu?
Both COVID-19 and flu can cause severe illness and complications. According to the CDC, individuals at the highest risk for severe illness from both flu and COVID-19 include:
- Older adults
- People with underlying medical conditions, especially diabetes and obesity
Pregnant people may also be at increased risk for severe illness from both.
Healthy children are more at risk for severe illness from flu than COVID-19. However, children with underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for illness from both. In addition, school-aged children infected with COVID-19 have higher risk of developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a rare but serious complication from COVID-19.
How to prevent flu and COVID-19
There is currently no approved vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The best way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid exposure to the virus.
Getting your flu shot during the 2020-2021 season is more important than ever since COVID-19 is also circulating. The flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19, but it will reduce the burden of flu cases and conserve medical resources for those who become infected with COVID-19.
"Preventing that which we can prevent is key," Dr. Sharma says. "The most important way to prevent flu is by getting an influenza vaccination. Getting a flu shot for yourself and your children will prevent a lot of the serious complications related to flu."
Your family can also take everyday actions to prevent illness. Stop the spread of germs by:
- Washing your hands often
- Covering coughs and sneezes
- Covering your mouth and nose with a face mask when around others to prevent the spread of COVID-19
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
- Monitoring your health by being alert for symptoms
- Avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick and staying home if you are sick