COVI9-19 has changed our lives for the foreseeable future. Wearing masks is the new normal, social distancing is the new catchphrase, and gathering in crowds is no longer acceptable. Virtual meetings have replaced most of our previous social interactions. 

The novelty of this new virus has made it a challenge to understand and predict. Complicating this challenge are changes unrelated to the virus. For example, we’ve had to learn how the virus spreads as the weather has changed, as we have celebrated holidays, and as we have attempted to return to work, school, and church. Each of these changes presents unknowns but all represent changes in the risk of spread.

flu and covid sick person supplies

Currently, we are anxiously awaiting to see what will be the consequences as much of the nation returns to school. Experts are convinced we will see an increase in cases but have difficulty predicting the exact quantity. Furthermore, they worry that we will see another wave of increased infections, associated complications, and even deaths in the community, mostly as a result of spread from students.

Soon, we will face yet another new scenario that represents an unprecedented challenge: influenza season (flu season). Even before COVID-19, influenza presented a challenge for our communities and healthcare systems. Because we are accustomed to flu season, we often forget that it alone provides a yearly strain on our healthcare system.

Influenza is usually less deadly than COVID-19 for several reasons: the two viruses have distinct, genetic characteristics and behavior in the body, we have an effective flu vaccine, we have antiviral medications for the flu, and there is a baseline level of immunity throughout the community from prior infections.  

For comparison, influenza usually causes 50,000 – 80,000 American deaths each year. So far, COVID-19 has caused over 200,000 deaths; more than all the deaths of American soldiers in the last three decades combined! Without some change in its current course, we might reach 300,000 deaths by the end of the year. Either disease is devastating on its own. Combining the two has the potential to be truly catastrophic.

To make the situation more confusing for patients and doctors, there is an extensive overlap between the symptoms of influenza and COVID-19. According to the Center for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC), below are some of the similarities of COVID and flu symptoms, which will vary from person to person.

Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:

  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Fever or chills
  • Nasal congestion or drainage
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches or muscle pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

As you can see, the two illnesses can be essentially identical. This makes sense given both are respiratory viruses with somewhat similar methods of causing illness. There are only two symptoms that reliably distinguish COVID-19 from influenza: loss of taste and loss of smell.  

Fortunately, the same changes in behavior that prevent the spread of COVID-19 also prevent the spread of the flu. These include distancing, hygiene, mask-wearing, staying home when sick, and avoiding bars, crowded restaurants, and social gatherings.  

Since prevention measures are largely the same, we may have a much milder than normal flu season as we avoid spreading COVID-19. This exact phenomenon has been observed in the southern hemisphere where countries that are emerging from their flu seasons saw much fewer flu cases than normal.

Either way, if you start experiencing what the CDC refers to as “emergency warning signs,” call 911, go to an Urgent Care facility, or the emergency room immediately. The emergency warning signs include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent chest pain or pressure
  • Cough productive of dark or bloody mucous
  • Mental confusion or unusual drowsiness
  • Blue colored skin or lips

This upcoming fall and winter will produce unprecedented, serious challenges when it comes to COVID-19 and the flu. Filling hospital beds, clinics, and emergency rooms with patients infected with the flu while fighting COVID-19 is a daunting prospect. But, we can all contribute to the solution. Both infections can largely be avoided by changing our behavior as well as getting a flu shot. While it is always important to get a flu shot, this year getting a flu shot should be considered critical. And, by washing our hands, wearing a mask, and practicing social distancing, we can reduce the spread of both illnesses.