Is it the flu or something else? Here’s how to find out.
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.
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
- Difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
People with the flu or COVID-19 may experience a loss of taste or smell, although this is more common with COVID-19.
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.
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:
- 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
- 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
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.
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.Back to top
The Flu Will Be Back. Here’s How to Be Prepared.
One of the few pleasant health surprises of 2020 was the almost total absence of a flu season. Primarily due to safety precautions, such as masking, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing, the U.S. experienced a historic low in flu cases and deaths.
The CDC usually reports somewhere between 21 to 45 million cases of flu and 22,000 to 61,000 flu deaths each year. But during the 2020-2021 season, the CDC reported only about 600 flu deaths. In fact, only one child died from the flu this past season, compared to a couple of hundred children dying from the flu most years.
The number of flu cases this year will almost surely increase
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that the upcoming flu season will be as mild. Flu cases were so low last year because so few people were gathering in groups, and many children (who often play a significant role in spreading flu germs) either didn’t attend school in person or wore masks at school. That likely won’t be the case for the upcoming 2021-2022 flu season.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from this past year’s extraordinarily mild flu season. If people continue to persist with precautionary habits such as diligent handwashing and staying home when sick, we’ll all be better prepared than ever for the upcoming flu season.
Here’s what you need to do to reduce your likelihood of catching the flu.
Get the flu vaccine
The influenza vaccine remains one of the best prevention tools available for reducing your risk of catching the flu. That’s true even during years when the flu vaccine isn’t as effective. Every year, scientists must make predictions well before flu season begins about what strains of flu they expect will circulate and then produce vaccines based on those predictions. If the predictions aren’t entirely accurate, or if the flu virus evolves new strains, the vaccine’s efficacy will decrease.
But even in years when the flu vaccine doesn’t perfectly match the flu strains going around, the vaccine usually cuts your risk of catching the flu in half. The vaccine can also reduce how severe your illness is if you do catch the flu. People vaccinated against the flu have lower hospitalization and death rates from flu than those who didn’t get the vaccine.
Take care of your body
Your immune system needs to be at its best to fight off the flu. That means doing your best to eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep each night, and get regular physical activity.
A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins that contain the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients your body needs to keep your immune system in good shape. If you have concerns about whether you’re getting enough of all the nutrients you need, talk to your doctor about whether it would help to take a supplement for certain vitamins or minerals.
Sleep is especially important to letting your body replenish itself and keeping your immune system ready to tackle viruses like the flu. In fact, not getting enough sleep is linked to chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, poor mental health, and heart disease. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night, and children need several more hours depending on their age.
Practice good hygiene
The usual recommendations for stopping the spread of germs are as true as ever. Wash your hands regularly and avoid others in public who are sniffling, coughing, or sneezing.
Now that research from the pandemic has shown how well masks slow the spread of respiratory disease, those with compromised immune systems might opt for masks during flu season, too.Back to top
How Long Does the Flu Last? How Can I Treat My Symptoms?
The seasonal flu, if uncomplicated, can last up to 14 days. Typically, signs and symptoms occur for 3-7 days. Treatment for the flu varies based on the specific symptoms you experience. The most common symptoms are fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, congestion, runny nose, headache, and fatigue.
- Fever, chills, and muscle aches may be treated with Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen).
- A cough can be treated with Delsym (dextromethorphan), but only if the symptom is severe. Lung congestion can be treated with Mucinex (guaifenesin) or the supplement N-Acetyl-Cysteine.
- Sinus can congestion be treated with Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), Sudafed PE (phenylephrine), Afrin nasal spray (oxymetazoline), or
Ocean saline spray.
- A runny nose can be treated with your favorite antihistamine like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Zyrtec (cetirizine). You can also use a steroidal nasal inhaler, like Flonase, for a runny nose.
As always, if your symptoms are severe or you have other health issues, see your physician as soon as possible for medical treatment. Prescription medications, like Tamiflu or Xofluza, require the medication to be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.Back to top
The Flu Shot and COVID-19: Here’s What You Need to Know
COVID-19 may be dominating the news, but don’t forget about the flu. This year, it’s more important than ever to get your annual flu shot.
Getting the flu shot doesn’t just protect you from getting the flu, it also helps prevent the spread of influenza to vulnerable people (including infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems) who are more likely to suffer complications or end up hospitalized.
Here are answers to five common questions about flu shots during the COVID-19 outbreak:
What is the difference between the flu and COVID-19?
Many of the common symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are the same. These include fever, fatigue, body aches, a cough, sore throat, headache and a runny nose. That’s why, if you experience these symptoms, it’s important to contact your doctor to see if you should be tested or monitored for COVID-19.
While many of the common symptoms are similar, a peer-reviewed study published in the International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology found that there is one set of symptoms that’s far more common with COVID-19: loss of taste or smell. In fact, Dr. Carol Yan, co-author of the study, said in a press release, “Based on our study, if you have smell and taste loss, you are more than 10 times more likely to have COVID-19 infection than other causes of infection.”
While the diseases share many symptoms, a key difference between the two is their underlying cause. COVID-19 is caused by infection with one particular coronavirus, the novel 2019 coronavirus, also known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Influenza, on the other hand, can be caused by several different strains of influenza virus.
Most importantly, the two diseases differ in the availability of a preventative vaccine. While there is an annual flu shot that protects against the strains of influenza included in the vaccine, there is not yet a vaccine against the novel coronavirus.
Will the flu shot protect me against infection with the coronavirus?
No. The flu shot will not protect you again the coronavirus.
COVID-19 is caused by a different type of virus than the influenza viruses that cause the flu. The flu shot will only protect you against influenza, and even then, it only offers protection against certain strains of influenza.
You may hear the annual flu shot described as a trivalent or quadrivalent vaccinetri for three, and quadri for four. This does not mean the vaccine protects you against three or four different diseases. Rather, it means the vaccine protects you against three or four different strains of influenza.
Because there are many different strains of influenza, the exact strains the vaccine protects against vary from year to year, depending on which strains researchers think are most likely to be prevalent in the upcoming flu season.
While the flu shot will not protect you against coronavirus, it won’t make you more susceptible either.
If the flu shot won’t protect me against COVID-19, why is it so important to get a flu shot this year?
Local COVID-19 outbreaks can cause a surge in demand for urgent care centers, ERs, hospitals and ICUs. Getting the flu shot will help keep you and those around you healthy during a potential surge in demand for healthcare in your community.
Can I have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?
Yes, you can have both at the same time. Because flu season was winding down in Europe and the U.S. by the time the COVID-19 outbreak hit, researchers don’t yet have a lot of data on the impact of co-infection with flu and COVID-19.
However, one small study on patients at a hospital in Wuhan, China, at the start of the pandemic found that co-infection with the flu did increase the risk of certain serious complications. COVID-19 patients who also had the flu were more likely to experience cardiac injury or a cytokine storm (an over-reaction of the immune system that can lead to death).
Who should get their flu vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The flu shot is especially important for people at high risk of complications from the flu, including young children, people over 65, pregnant women, and people with asthma, COPD, cancer, heart disease, diabetes or HIV. But since no one is immune from potential complications and everyone is capable of spreading influenza to vulnerable people, anyone who is six months of age or older should get the flu shot unless they have a compelling medical reason to skip it.
Fortunately, there are few people who should not get the flu shot. Infants younger than six months of age cannot get a flu shot. People who have had severe, life-threatening reactions to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients should also skip the shot.
However, the CDC recommends that you talk with your doctor if you have an egg allergy or a history of Guillain-Barr Syndrome (GBS; a severe, paralyzing illness). You may still be able to get the flu vaccine, and your doctor can help you decide whether the vaccine is right for you and how best to proceed.Back to top
Thinking of Skipping the Flu Vaccine? Here’s Why You Should Think Again.
The flu shot isn’t always a top priority. Many people don’t consider themselves high risk, or they may not be sure the flu shot really works. Others may be worried they’ll catch the flu from the shot itself.
But this logic couldn’t be more wrong. Influenza can cause serious complications, hospitalization and even death. Depending on the severity of the flu season, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that between 140,000 and 810,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with the flu each year and between 12,000 and 61,000 die.
The reality is that many groups of people are at higher risk from the flu, and the flu shot offers significant health benefits to everyone, not just high-risk people. And no, you can’t catch the flu from the flu shot. Here’s what you need to know about the seasonal flu and why the annual flu vaccine is so important.
Who’s at risk
It’s important to know that anyone can experience serious complications from the flu, even people who aren’t considered to be high risk. And there are many people who have elevated risk of serious complications, hospitalization and even death if they get the flu.
Older people are at increased risk. The CDC estimates that people 65 and older make up at least 70% of flu-related deaths and at least 50% of flu-related hospitalizations. However, age isn’t the only factor. According to the CDC, the following groups are also at higher risk:
- Pregnant women.
- Young children (those under age 5, and especially those under age 2).
- Children with neurological conditions.
- People who have had a stroke.
- People with asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer or HIV/AIDS.
How the flu shot helps
You may have heard that the flu shot is not 100% effective. This is not a myth. The effectiveness of the flu shot varies from year to year because researchers have to make an educated guess about which strains of flu will be circulating the following season. They need to predict this in advance so they have time to make the flu shots. Some years, the match between the vaccine and the variants of the flu virus for the season match perfectly. Other years, there may be a strain in circulation that wasn’t in the vaccine.
The CDC estimates that when there’s a good match between circulating flu viruses and the vaccine, the shot will reduce your chance of catching the flu by 40% to 60%. However, that’s not the only benefit. When people who are vaccinated do get sick with the flu, they often get a milder case than people who have not been vaccinated and they are much less likely to suffer from serious flu complications.
Benefits to adults
The CDC reports that, when people are hospitalized with the flu, those who have not received the flu vaccine that year are two to five times more likely to die.
The differences the CDC reports for people based on vaccination status are not just in death rates. Vaccinated adults ages 18 to 49 years of age and adults 65 years of age and older hospitalized with the flu are 37% less likely to be admitted to the ICU. Of those who are admitted to the ICU with a flu-like illness, adults ages 50 and older who have had their annual flu vaccine have shorter average stays than those who have not been vaccinated.
Benefits to pregnant women and infants
Pregnant women who get the flu shot reduce their risk of being hospitalized with flu complications by an average of 40%, the CDC reports. Getting the flu vaccine while pregnant also helps protect babies from the flu before they’re old enough to get the flu shot themselves, when they are six months old. That’s because the mother passes along to her baby the flu antibodies she builds in response to the flu shot.
Benefits to children
A 2017 study conducted by the CDC found that the flu vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated death by 51% among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions and by nearly 65% among healthy children.
Even if you don’t fall into a high-risk group, it’s likely a family member, friend or colleague does. Sometimes you may not even know who in your circle is at higher risk. Plus, while people are most infectious during the early days of the flu, they can also be contagious one to seven days before getting sick. Simple everyday activities done right before you get sick, such as going to work, visiting a friend or having a family member over for dinner, can potentially spread the disease to them. By getting vaccinated, you not only save yourself from a week or more of misery, you also prevent yourself from unknowingly infecting and perhaps seriously sickening those around you.
The Flu Shot: Separating Myth from Fact
The CDC estimates that between 9 million and 49 million people fall ill from the flu each year, leading to more than 200,000 hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths annually. But as a recent University of Chicago survey noted, almost 40 percent of American adults still skip the flu shot.
There are many reasons why people may avoid this vaccine — but some of the most common excuses for skipping the annual flu shot are based on myths and misconceptions about what this vaccine is and how it can protect you — and your community.
Here are some of the most pervasive myths about the flu shot:
MYTH: The flu shot works only if you get it before November.
FACT: The CDC recommends that people get vaccinated before the onset of the flu season, which is generally in early November. Since it takes approximately two weeks after the flu shot for your body to develop the protective antibodies, getting vaccinated at the beginning of the school year, or no later than Halloween, offers the greatest protection. However, there’s a reason why the flu vaccine is available throughout the flu season: Just two weeks later, you’ll be covered for the rest of the season. This is especially important if the flu season runs late, as it did in the 2018-2019 season. If you have questions about whether you would benefit from a flu vaccine, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
MYTH: The flu vaccine can give you the flu.
FACT: While the flu vaccine can result in some side effects, including headaches, fever and muscle aches, in approximately one to two percent of people, the flu shot won’t infect you with the influenza virus. According to the CDC, flu vaccines use either inactivated viruses or specific genes from different strains of influenza (isolated from the viruses and then transformed into vaccine form) in order to help your body build protective antibodies. Neither inactivated viruses nor the gene-based vaccines are infectious. So while you may experience a few mild but annoying side effects after receiving a flu vaccine, these symptoms are decidedly not the flu — and won’t last for more than a day or two.
MYTH: The flu shot is only for people with a compromised immune system.
FACT: Even healthy people can get the flu. As noted above, the CDC estimates that approximately five to 20 percent of Americans will be infected each year. By receiving a flu vaccination, you can not only protect yourself (and save yourself a week in bed or worse) but also protect your friends, family and broader community, especially those who may suffer from a compromised immune system.
MYTH: Flu vaccines can cause autism.
FACT: Absolutely false. In the late 1990s, a controversial study suggested there was a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the later development of autism. In the years since, this study has been thoroughly debunked, several times over — and studies looking at other vaccines, like the flu vaccine, have demonstrated they do not cause autism. According to the CDC, multiple studies have shown there is no link between vaccines, or vaccine ingredients, and the development of autism. This includes the flu vaccine.
MYTH: The flu vaccine won’t really stop you from getting the flu.
FACT: Each year’s flu vaccine contains protection against a few viruses that the CDC deems as most prevalent (or dangerous) in a given flu season. The vaccine will protect you from picking up those specific strains, but it may leave you vulnerable to others that are very different from those selected. That said, some vaccinated people may still catch one of the strains included in the current year’s vaccine. But studies show that when that occurs, individuals who are vaccinated experience less severe symptoms and fewer flu-related complications and are much less likely to require hospitalization during the course of their illness. So even if you do pick up a flu virus, you are still better off being vaccinated.Back to top
Clearing Up Misconceptions About the Flu
When it comes to the flu, it seems like everyone, from your mailman to your mother-in- law, has some advice about how to prevent and treat it. Although tens of millions of Americans will come down with the flu each year, much of the “common wisdom” shared about the flu isn’t so wise at all. Here are five common myths and misconceptions about the flu—plus a healthy dose of the truth.
- “Antibiotics will cure the flu.” Too often, as soon as the sniffles hit, someone will suggest you need a prescription for amoxicillin, stat. However, even if you are experiencing aches, chills and a fever, antibiotics won’t help. Influenza is caused by a virus—so antibiotics, which fight bacteria, won’t be effective at all.
- “You’ll get the flu from the flu shot.” Each year, many people avoid getting their annual flu vaccine because they fear they will get sick. The reality is that the flu vaccine can’t give you the flu, because it incorporates forms of the virus that can’t infect you, such as inactivated or attenuated flu viruses or single genes from the flu virus. All forms trigger the same immune response—helping you to build the antibodies required to fight infection. That said, it is possible to have a mild reaction in response to a flu immunization. Some people report soreness or swelling at the site of the inoculation, while others may experience a low-grade fever, headache or muscle aches. These symptoms generally last for only a day or two.
- “You can catch the flu from being outside in cold weather.” Despite centuries of Contently 1 grandmothers warning us to wear a warm coat once winter hits, cold weather does not cause the flu. Influenza is caused by exposure to the flu virus—not the cold. So why might flu season run from October to April, then? Scientists aren’t entirely sure, but they hypothesize that it may be due to the fact that we spend more time indoors when temperatures drop, in closer proximity to those who may be carrying the virus.
- “A few bowls of chicken soup should do it.” While a good bowl of chicken soup may be good for the soul—and may feel good on a sore or phlegmy throat—it does not contain any ingredients that can combat a viral infection.
- “Once you are vaccinated, you don’t have to worry about catching the flu.” The flu shot is not 100% effective. Each year, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) select specific strains of the virus they believe will be particularly contagious for a given year. In years where the specific strains in the vaccine don’t match the strains that actually go around, you are still at risk of catching the flu. Even if there is a good match, the flu vaccine is only about 40-60% effective against the strains it immunizes you against. However, the CDC notes that, even if you do catch a strain you were vaccinated against, the immunity you built from getting vaccinated will reduce the severity of disease.
While there are a lot of misconceptions about the flu, there are proven, concrete steps you can take to prevent infection. This includes getting the annual flu shot, washing your hands frequently and avoiding contact with people who have come down with the flu.Back to top
How You Can (and Can't) Catch the Flu
A person who has the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most experts believe flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly can be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching her mouth or nose.
The CDC recommends avoiding sick people and staying home if you’re sick. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol- based hand rub. Linens, eating utensils, and dishes belonging to those who are sick should not be shared without washing thoroughly first. Frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected at home, work and school.
The flu is contagious. Most healthy adults may be able to infect other people beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. That means you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick.
What’s one way you can’t catch the flu? From the flu vaccine, according to Harvard Medical School. The vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that can’t transmit infection. People who get sick after receiving a flu vaccination were going to get sick anyway. It takes a week or two to get protection from the vaccine. But people often assume that because they got sick after getting the vaccine, the shot caused their illness.Back to top
Three Actions to Fight the Flu
Influenza (flu) is a contagious disease that can be very serious. Every year, millions of people get sick, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands to tens of thousands of people die from flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges everyone to take the following actions to protect themselves and others from the flu.
1. Get yourself and your family vaccinated.
A yearly flu vaccine is the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses. Everyone 6 months or older should get an annual flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible, or as soon as possible after October. Flu vaccines are offered in many locations, including doctor’s offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies and college health centers. They are even offered by some employers and in some schools.
2. Take everyday preventive actions to help stop the spread of flu viruses.
Avoid close contact with sick people, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands often (with soap and water), and clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with flu viruses. If you become sick, limit contact with others as much as possible. Remember to cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw tissues in the trash after you use them. Stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine before resuming normal activities.)
3. Take antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them.
Antiviral drugs can make illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia. CDC recommends that antiviral drugs be used early to treat people who are very sick with the flu (for example, people who are in the hospital) and people who are sick with the flu and are at high risk of serious flu complications, either because of their age or because they have a high risk medical condition.
Source: cdc.govBack to top
Fight Off Colds and Flu More Easily with a Good Diet
Part of staying healthy, especially during these winter months when viruses are more common, is eating a balanced diet. Here are a few tips on maximizing the effect of the nutrients in your food as a way to fight colds and flu.
Think color and variety. Eat a colorful plate to get all of the vitamins and nutrients you need to stay healthy. Choosing a variety of fruits and veggies can help you make sure you get important phytochemicals that can help boost your immune system.
Stay hydrated. Water, herbal tea and other non-caffeinated drinks can help keep your system running well and help you fight off germs. Carry a refillable water bottle with you throughout the day.
Think fiber. Choose whole grains such as wheat bread, brown rice and whole-grain cereals.
Eat healthy protein. Get enough protein from lean meats, fish, eggs, tofu and beans.
Practice smart snacking. Think ahead and pack fruits, dairy or nuts to keep you going between meals.
Consider taking a multivitamin. Not every day is going to be a perfect day when it comes to healthy eating. A multivitamin can help fill the nutritional gaps.
Source: University of Michigan