Is it the flu or something else? Here’s how to find out

September 2022

If you’re feeling sick, you may wonder whether you have the flu. While your symptoms can provide some clues, the only way to know for sure is to get tested. That’s because common flu symptoms can overlap with symptoms of COVID-19 — or even the common cold. Having a clear diagnosis is an essential part of seeking prompt treatment.

Learn more about the common symptoms, testing options, potential treatments, and prevention.

Symptoms

Especially when cold-weather viruses are going around, it can be hard to tell whether you have the flu, COVID-19, or a cold. A May 2022 article from Health.com found that some people infected with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 were experiencing symptoms that looked more like the common cold: coughing, sneezing, and congestion.

For other people, though, COVID-19 symptoms are much more like flu symptoms. According to the CDC, common symptoms of both the flu and COVID-19 may include the following:

  • Fever or chills
  • Body aches and pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

People with the flu or COVID-19 may experience a loss of taste or smell, although this is more common with COVID-19.

Testing

In order to get treated, you first have to get diagnosed; but with so many overlapping symptoms, diagnosis requires testing. Some pharmacies can run rapid tests for both the flu and COVID-19 — two illnesses that benefit from prompt treatment.

If your local pharmacy offers testing, this may be the quickest and easiest way to get an answer. Otherwise, call your doctor to find out the best way to get tested in your area.

Treating the flu

If you test positive for the flu, contact your doctor to see whether you should take one of the four antiviral treatments available for the flu.

The CDC recommends antiviral treatment for people at higher risk of flu complications. This includes people who

  • are 65+ years old, or younger than 2
  • have asthma or other lung diseases
  • have diabetes
  • have heart, kidney, or liver disease
  • have a BMI of 40 or higher
  • have a weakened immune system
  • are pregnant
  • live in nursing homes

There are a number of other conditions that increase your risk of flu complications, so if you test positive, be sure to talk with a doctor.

The CDC reports that antiviral treatments work best when started within two days of symptom onset. For people at high risk of complications, these treatments can reduce the risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death.

Flu complications

Most people who get the flu recover within two weeks. However, some people with the flu can develop complications, some of which can be life-threatening. Potential flu complications include the following:

  • Pneumonia
  • Worsening of underlying medical problems (e.g., asthma or heart disease)
  • Sinus and ear infections (examples of moderate flu complications)
  • Heart inflammation (myocarditis)
  • Organ failure
  • Sepsis

Signs that an adult with the flu requires emergency medical attention include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Continual chest pain or pressure
  • Persistent confusion or dizziness
  • Severe pain, unsteadiness, or weakness
  • Inability to wake up
  • Not urinating
  • Worsening of existing medical problems, such as asthma or heart problems
  • Seizures

If you have any other symptoms that don’t feel right to you, call your doctor immediately to see whether you require urgent medical help.

Treating COVID-19 or the common cold

If you test positive for COVID-19, talk to your doctor. Depending on your age, underlying medical conditions, and vaccination status, you may benefit from treatment such as oral antivirals and intravenous monoclonal antibodies.

There are no prescription medications that can help with the common cold. Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections, and common colds are caused by viruses, but you can ask your pharmacist for over-the-counter medications to help manage your symptoms.

Prevention

The best prevention strategy is to get vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19. Vaccination reduces your chances of developing an infection, and if you do get sick, being vaccinated helps prevent serious illness, complications, hospitalization, and death.

Practicing proper hand hygiene and staying away from people who are sick can also help protect you.

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