Flu season meets COVID-19

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

Time saver 5 min read

As the days get cooler and the nights grow longer each fall that means just one thing: flu season is coming.

While a seasonal flu spike happens nearly every year, this year’s flu season meets COVID-19 head-on – and you’re probably wondering what that means for you and your family.

You want to know what makes coronavirus and influenza symptoms so similar yet so different. You want to know how to tell symptoms apart so you can get the right care. You want to know how to protect yourself, your family and others from both illnesses. We can help.

As the 2020-21 flu season gets underway and COVID-19 cases are on the rise, 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 say that influenza viruses thrive in cold, dry climates. Others say that less daylight hours (and less Vitamin D and melatonin as a result) weaken our immune systems and make it easier for us to get sick.

But the theory with real scientific clout is a simple and familiar one: We spend more time inside during winter months, which means we spend a lot more time breathing the same air as everyone else.

Influenza can live on surfaces and be transmitted that way, but it’s an illness that easily spreads by close contact with others and can also spread over the air – just like COVID-19. From coughing and sneezing to talking and eating, these viruses can travel on respiratory water droplets in the air, and you can breathe them 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 is what causes COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, our bodies had never experienced this type of coronavirus before. That means our bodies haven’t had a chance to build up antibodies to fight the virus.

Do flu vaccines protect against COVID-19? No.

The flu vaccine is specifically designed to fight specific strains of influenza viruses, which means it does not protect you from COVID-19. Flu vaccines have been around since the mid-1940s. But there is no vaccine for COVID-19. However, scientists and researchers are working on a vaccine now, with several in clinical trials.

Can the flu turn into COVID-19? No.

The flu cannot turn into COVID-19. And COVID-19 cannot turn into the flu. Again, while these two respiratory illnesses may have similar symptoms, they are caused by different viruses.

Can you have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time? Yes.

Viruses don’t mind company. So, yes. It’s possible for you to be infected with the coronavirus and influenza viruses – as well as other respiratory illnesses like the common cold – at the same time.

COVID-19 symptoms vs. flu symptoms: There are some telltale differences

Both COVID-19 and the flu are severe respiratory illnesses, so they 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, and more.

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. This may be due to the differences in incubation periods: You can be infected with COVID-19 for up to 14 days before symptoms show, whereas flu symptoms usually make themselves known one to four days after infection.
  • COVID-19 cough symptoms are more severe. Flu coughs are usually mild and dry. COVID-19 coughs are usually dry and persistent, which can leave you feeling short of breath.
  • COVID-19 has some unique symptoms. New loss of taste or smell is unique to COVID-19. In addition, there are several symptoms that are common with COVID-19, but far less frequent or rare with the flu, including: sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and repeated shaking with chills.

If you want to learn more, check out this post on COVID-19 vs. flu symptoms from our friends at HealthPartners.

What our experts are saying

“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: Follow recommended safety guidelines

For months, you’ve been staying home, limiting grocery store runs, wearing a mask and keeping your distance from others when you’re in public spaces, washing and sanitizing hands frequently, and so much more. And as we head into flu season with COVID-19 still lingering, keep it up.

Numerous studies out there show that mitigation efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 work – even curbing last year’s flu season. In fact, the CDC recently reported that influenza activity began to decrease by mid- to late-February 2020 thanks to the widespread adoption of community mitigation measures. So, by slowing the spread of COVID-19, we also slowed the spread of flu.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for flu season. The CDC actually says it’s especially important to prepare since both viruses may circulate together this year.

Should I still get a flu shot this year? Yes.

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.

When you get a flu shot, you can be up to 60% less likely to get the flu, according to the CDC. And if you do get the flu, your symptoms will likely be milder and last a shorter amount of time.

What’s the best way to safely get a flu shot?

Flu shots are widely available at local pharmacies and health clinics. But you’ll likely need to make an appointment this year, rather than walking in. This allows flu shot providers to adequately clean between vaccines and keep you distanced from others.

You can also look for a drive-up flu shot clinic close to you. That way you don’t even need to get out of your vehicle to get your vaccine.

If you’re in Minnesota or western Wisconsin, our friends at HealthPartners can offer flu shot appointments. VaccineFinder – a free online service – can also help you find where flu shots and other vaccinations are available near you.

Feeling icky? Don’t ignore your symptoms.

If you experience flu or COVID-19-like symptoms, it’s important that know when to get medical care and testing.

Mild flu symptoms and COVID-19 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 helps reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. But they’re most effective when taken within the first 48 hours of symptom onset.

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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