Is It COVID-19 Or The Flu?

Tips on telling the difference and prevention

As we head further into the fall season, we also enter the flu season and getting a flu shot is more important than ever because of the potential double dose of risk. The CDC is recommending that all people six months and older get a flu shot which has been shown to reduce the risk of flu-related illness by between 40 to 60 percent and can also reduce the severity of illness in people who are vaccinated but still get sick.

While researchers race to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, it is encouraging to see that many are now more likely to receive a flu shot this fall. According to a recent UnitedHealthcare survey, 30 percent of Americans say the pandemic has made them more likely to receive an annual flu shot this fall. Still, people may have concerns. How are COVID-19 and the flu similar? How are they different? What’s the best way to protect yourself? I’m not feeling well, but I’m not sure if I should I see my doctor in-person. What do I do?

Similarities:

The seasonal flu and COVID-19 do share some overlapping symptoms, so people may need to be tested to confirm a proper diagnosis. They both cause respiratory illness, which presents as a wide range of symptoms—from asymptomatic to a mild to severe illness. Both viruses are transmitted by contact and droplets. As a result, the same public health measures—such as hand hygiene, physical distancing, and mask wearing—are important actions all can take to prevent infection.

Differences:

The speed of transmission is an important point of differentiation. The flu generally has a shorter average incubation period—the time from infection to appearance of symptoms—and a shorter serial interval—the time between successive cases—than the COVID-19 virus. The serial interval for the COVID-19 virus is estimated to be five to six days, while for the flu, the serial interval is estimated to be three days. This means that the flu may show symptoms faster than COVID-19 symptoms.

The flu usually comes on suddenly. Common flu symptoms may include cough, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue. COVID-19 symptoms may come on more gradually, and may include similar flu symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headaches and muscle or body aches. COVID-19 symptoms can also include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting and additionally loss of taste and/or smell.

Those most at risk for the flu are children, pregnant women, elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. For COVID-19, our current understanding is that individuals who are older in age underlying conditions, such as obesity, diabetes or hypertension, have increased the risk for the most severe infection. The CDC confirms that the virus that causes COVID-19 is more contagious than the seasonal flu, with emerging research showing “airborne” transmission is possible. This means that when a group is exposed to COVID-19, more of the exposed group is likely to get the disease compared to a similar group exposure to the flu virus.

Prevention

In addition to good habits—such as washing your hands, covering your cough with your elbow, wearing a properly fitting mask and avoiding people who are already sick—getting a flu shot is the single most important thing people can do to prevent the flu. A flu shot is relatively low cost and is often covered through employer-sponsored, individual and Medicare and Medicaid health plans as preventative care with little to no copay. Now is the best time to get your flu shot. Flu shots are available through primary care physicians, pharmacies, convenience care clinics and many other locations. Visit cdc.gov/flu to search for a nearby care provider based on your zip code.

If you think you may be sick and need but don’t want to risk an in-person visit, there are a host of resources available to get help. Most employers and health plans offer 24-hour telehealth providers who can help determine next best steps. If you are sick but aren’t sure if it is the flu or COVID-19 you can see your doctor through a telehealth visit without potentially exposing yourself and the doctor can help you decide if you need to be tested.

Each year, UnitedHealthcare works to educate members and the public about the importance of getting a flu shot. This year we are working harder than ever to help people understand the similarities and differences between the flu and COVID-19 as well as helping customers arrange ways to hold flu clinics or providing guidance to members on where and how they can get flu shots. We’re also using technology to forecast flu activity in metro areas across the U.S. in an effort to target additional outreach and resources throughout the 2020-2021 flu season and are actively reminding our health plan members to catch up on any missed routine vaccinations during the pandemic.

While 2020 has certainly been a challenging year thanks to COVID-19, proactive measures to prevent the flu can help us start 2021 on a more positive note.

—Submitted by Dr. Donna O’Shea

Chief Medical Officer of Population Health Management UnitedHealthcare

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