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Are your symptoms flu or COVID-19?

Wellness | September 14, 2020
young woman blowing nose into a tissue
Coughing? Fever? Chills? How can you tell if you have influenza or COVID-19? Here's how they compare.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and with the influenza season just around the corner, the overlap of symptoms for both illnesses can cause a lot of confusion.

The facts

Both COVID-19 and influenza are contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Many symptoms of the two are similar, but there are also some key differences, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ultimately, testing may need to be done to determine which virus, if any, you have.

Symptoms shared by COVID-19 and influenza

The severity of both COVID-19 and flu can range from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms.

Shared symptoms include: 

  • Fever or chills. 
  • Cough.
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sore throat.
  • Congestion or running nose. 
  • Muscle or body aches.
  • Headache.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea.

Differences in COVID-19 and influenza symptoms

So far, research indicates there may only be one significant difference in symptoms between COVID-19 and the flu:

  • The change in or loss of taste and smell.

Because of this, you may need to see a doctor for testing to determine which virus, if any, you have.

COVID-19 and Influenza (flu) symptoms

Other comparisons

There are a few other notable similarities and differences between influenza and the new coronavirus.

Contagious period:

  • Similarities: The CDC says both viruses can spread for at least one day before a person shows symptoms.
  • Differences: A person with the flu may be contagious for up to seven days, compared with COVID-19, which could spread for up to 10 days after someone shows symptoms or tests positive. 

How the viruses spread:

  • Similarities: Both COVID-19 and the flu can spread from person-to-person when they’re within about 6 feet of each other. Both are spread mainly by respiratory droplets exerted when someone coughs, sneezes or talks.
  • Differences: COVID-19 is more contagious among certain groups of people than the flu. It can also spread quickly and easily, leading to more “superspreading” events – situations in which one person infects a lot of other people who then spread it to more people.

People at high risk:

  • Similarities: Both viruses can cause severe illness for older adults, people with certain underlying medical conditions and pregnant women.
  • Differences: The risk for serious complications for healthy children is higher with the flu. However, school-aged children with COVID-19 are at higher risk for Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a rare but severe complication of COVID-19.

Severe illness or death:

  • Similarities: Both flu and COVID-19 can cause serious illness that leads to hospitalization or death.
  • Differences: While there is still much to learn about COVID-19, at this time, it does appear that the coronavirus is more deadly. The CDC estimates that up to 61,000 people die every year from influenza. As of September 14, more than 193,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. However, more data is needed confirm the mortality rate of COVID-19.


  • Similarities: People can protect themselves and others against both illnesses by:
    • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
    • Covering coughs and sneezes.
    • Wearing a mask.
    • Washing hands often.
    • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects.
  • Differences: There are multiple approved vaccines for influenza. The CDC recommends the vaccine for everyone older than 6 months. There is currently no approved vaccine for COVID-19, although several are in development.

If you’d like to schedule your influenza vaccination, contact your doctor.

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