Navigating flu season amid COVID-19

What you need to know to protect yourself and others from two serious illnesses

Time saver 4 min read

The seasonal flu happens nearly every year, but this flu season is complicated by COVID-19. You likely have a lot of questions about what that means for you and your family. When does the seasonal flu typically strike? How are flu and COVID symptoms different? What about vaccines – can you get both at the same time?

As COVID-19 continues to spread and the 2021-2022 flu season gets underway, here’s what you need to know.

Flu season: When is it and why is it a thing?

When does flu season peak? Flu season usually starts ramping up in November, with the number of illnesses peaking between December and February. But flu season can start as early as October and last into May.

Why do we have a flu season? Influenza viruses circulate year-round, but we don’t usually see a rise in cases until cold weather sets in. And honestly, we don’t know exactly why.

Some scientists attribute a rise in influenza viruses during the winter months to a belief that these viruses thrive in cold, dry climates. Others think that reduced daylight hours (and less Vitamin D and melatonin as a result) weaken our immune systems – making us more susceptible to viruses and illnesses.

But the theory with the most scientific clout is a simple and familiar one: We spend more time inside during the winter months, which means we also spend a lot more time breathing in the same air and germs as those around us.

Influenza can live on surfaces and be transmitted when you touch something like a doorknob and then rub your eyes or nose. But it’s more commonly spread by close contact with others and through the air – just like COVID-19. From talking and eating to coughing and sneezing, these viruses can travel through the air in in respiratory droplets that you breathe in and become infected.

Coronavirus vs. influenza: How are they different?

Despite sharing many of the same symptoms, influenza and the coronavirus are different viruses that cause different, highly-contagious respiratory illnesses.

Influenza viruses – typically Influenza A and Influenza B strains – cause the seasonal flu. Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) monitor flu patterns. This helps them develop the most effective flu vaccine possible for the coming flu season.

A new coronavirus strain called SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19. Because our bodies haven’t been exposed to this type of coronavirus before, we don’t naturally have antibodies to fight the virus.

COVID-19 symptoms vs. flu symptoms

Both COVID-19 and the flu are severe respiratory illnesses that share many similar symptoms including:

  • Fever of 100°F or more
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Dry cough
  • Muscle pain and body aches
  • Fatigue or extreme lack of energy

But there are some telltale differences that have been identified so far, including:

  • Flu symptoms will hit you hard and fast, while COVID-19 symptoms come on more gradually. How symptoms initially present is likely due to differences in incubation periods. For example, you can be infected with COVID-19 for up to 14 days before symptoms show up, while flu symptoms usually come on within one to four days of being infected.
  • COVID-19 cough symptoms are more severe. While not everyone who gets the flu or COVID develops a cough, if you do, flu coughs are usually mild while COVID-19 coughs are more persistent and can leave you feeling short of breath.
  • COVID-19 has some unique symptoms. A significant percentage of people who get COVID report experiencing a new loss of taste and/or smell.

It’s also worth noting, that you can have COVID and experience very mild symptoms, only one of these symptoms or no symptoms at all. That’s why testing is so important. For more information on influenza and COVID-19, visit the CDC’s website.

Advice from a nurse practitioner

“It's important that anyone experiencing COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms seek testing immediately. Not only does testing play an important role in slowing the spread of COVID-19, but also helps your provider recommend the best treatment to get you feeling better.”

– Tami Huberty, CNP for virtuwell

Protecting yourself and others this flu season

Numerous studies prove that mitigation efforts – like wearing a mask, social distancing and frequently washing your hands – work to slow the spread of both COVID-19 and the flu. So as we head into the winter months, it’s good to consider continuing or bringing back some of these practices.

Should I still get a flu shot this year?

Yes! Getting the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others against the flu. Flu shots are generally recommended for everyone 6 months and older.

According to the CDC, the flu vaccine can reduce your chances of getting sick by up to 60%. And if you do get the flu, your symptoms will likely be milder and last a shorter amount of time.

Can I get the COVID and flu vaccines at the same time?

Vaccines for both COVID-19 and the flu are widely available at local pharmacies and health clinics. Concerned about getting your flu and COVID vaccine at the same time? Don’t worry, according to the CDC it’s safe to get your flu vaccine at the same time as your first, second or booster COVID shot.

Feeling under the weather?

If you’re not feeling well and think you could have COVID-19 or the flu, don’t ignore your symptoms. Act quickly and get tested for COVID. Knowing if you have COVID helps ensure you get the treatment you need to feel better faster and helps you take measures to protect those around you from getting sick.

Mild flu and COVID symptoms can be treated at home, with a combination of home remedies and over-the-counter medications. Specifically for flu, those in high risk groups may benefit from anti-viral meds like Tamiflu® which help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. These prescription meds are most effective when taken within the first 48 hours of symptom onset, so it’s important not to delay diagnosis.

Virtuwell’s board-certified nurse practitioners can assess your symptoms, provide treatment (including prescriptions), and help you schedule testing for COVID-19, flu or both.

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