What you need to know about the flu this year

October 16, 2020 Cary Conway

Annually, medical experts encourage people to get a flu shot. However, this year, there is greater concern that the combination of the seasonal virus and COVID-19 could overwhelm the nation’s healthcare system.

When making health decisions for you and your family, it’s important to get the facts, so we’ve compiled questions and answers from expert resources.

What is the difference between influenza (flu) and COVID-19?

The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses that are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2) and flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses.

How do the symptoms of these two illnesses compare?

According to the CDC, both COVID-19 and the flu have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms.

Common symptoms for both include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults

With the flu, the illness can vary from mild to severe. A list of common signs and specific symptoms are available on the CDC website.

While many infected may be asymptomatic, COVID-19 can also cause more serious illness in some people. Signs and symptoms of COVID-19 that differ from the flu may include change in or loss of taste or smell. A list of specific symptoms can be found on the CDC website.  For a side-by-side comparison, you can refer to this page.

How is a cold different from the flu?

With a cold, the symptoms are gradual, a fever and chills are rare, and people usually only experience slight aches. Symptoms of the flu are generally abrupt, with a fever, aches, chills, fatigue and weakness, headache, chest discomfort and cough.

When is the flu season?

In the US, the flu season generally occurs in the fall and winter, with flu activity peaking between December and February.

What is the timeframe for people to get the flu vaccine?

The CDC recommends that everyone get the flu shot before the start of flu season in September or October.

How may COVID-19 impact this year’s flu season?

Given that many people continue to work from home, wear masks and social distance to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the United States may be in for a milder flu season.

How can I tell if I have COVID-19 or the flu?

Given the overlap in symptoms and the extremely contagious nature of both illnesses, it’s recommended that you see a medical professional to get the appropriate tests to determine if you may be infected with either illness.

Once a vaccine for the coronavirus is available, can I get both at the same time?

A vaccine for COVID-19 is not anticipated to be widely available until 2021. The flu shot for this year should be received this fall.

Should I get a flu shot?

It’s widely encouraged that most should get and will benefit from a flu shot each year. Healthline offers an excellent overview of pros and cons as to who will benefit and who should refrain from a flu vaccine.

Protecting yourself and others

Experts agree that there many effective ways to minimize the spread of the flu and COVID-19:

  • Keep your hands clean by washing frequently with warm water and soap. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and cough.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a mask when you’re around others.
  • Practice social distancing and avoid close contact with people if you are unwell or if you know someone else is unwell.

You can also keep your immune system operating at an optimal level by sleeping 7 to 9 hours each night, exercising frequently, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and reducing stress.

For more resources to help you through this season physically, mentally and financially, visit our Insights page.

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