How to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu

November 16, 2020

With flu season among us, it can be hard to make the distinction between COVID-19 and the flu. Many of the symptoms are similar between the two, and understanding the differences could end up saving a life. COVID-19 is highly contagious in comparison to the flu, and with no vaccine, it’s important to take the proper steps to protect yourself and others.

Symptoms of the flu

Symptoms of the flu can range from mild to severe. These flu symptoms can include:

  • Fever, with or without chills or body aches
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Running or stuffy nose.

Flu symptoms typically show 1 to 4 days after initial exposure. It is possible to be contagious just 1 day before showing symptoms and up to 7 days after exposure. The best way to prevent catching the flu is by receiving a flu shot.

Symptoms of COVID-19

Many cases of COVID-19 experience very mild symptoms or are asymptomatic altogether. Some cases are more severe and may require hospitalization. The only way to know for certain if you have COVID is by getting a rapid test. These are the symptoms to look for with COVID:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough, with potential shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of sense of smell or taste
  • Body aches
  • Headache

These symptoms can show anywhere from 2 to 14 days after the initial exposure. An active case of COVID can become contagious 2 days before symptoms and up to 10 days following. There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19. The best way to keep yourself safe is by washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth whenever in public, and maintain a social distance of 6 feet.

Key Differences

The best way to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu is dependent on when the symptoms show up. The flu will typically have all of the symptoms show up at once and quickly after exposure. While a persistent cough is a symptom for both viruses, the type of cough can help indicate what illness it is. The flu has a wet cough that produces phlegm, whereas COVID has a dry, “smokers” cough. A cough with COVID is usually more severe than the flu. The uniqueness of some COVID symptoms can also help make a determination. With the flu, patients do not experience loss of smell or taste or experience difficulty breathing.

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