Flu vs. COVID-19: Similarities and Differences


Flu vs. COVID-19: Similarities and Differences

It’s the middle of September, football has kicked off and the mosquitos will soon take a fall and winter hiatus. I know what you’re thinking: I sure wish Dr. Chatham would write a post discussing the similarities and differences between Flu and COVID-19. Let’s do this.

The Difference Between Flu and COVID-19

Flu and COVID-19 are both highly contagious respiratory illnesses. Flu is caused by the influenza virus whereas COVID-19 is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2 (creativity took a day off when this joker was named).

Flu Symptoms vs. COVID-19 Symptoms

When it comes to symptoms, these viruses are incredibly similar. Both run the spectrum from no symptoms at all to a severe illness requiring hospitalization. Both the Flu and COVID-19 can cause: 

  • Fever and chills
  • Trouble breathing
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Muscle and body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (more common in children

COVID-19 can also cause the infamous loss of taste and smell, but so can a nose full of snot from the Flu!

covid virus up close

Who is at risk for having severe symptoms?

Older folks and those with other medical problems have a much higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 than the Flu. On the other hand, younger kids have a lower risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 than the Flu. Kids can develop a COVID-19 related condition called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). While serious, this condition is very rare.

When do symptoms of COVID-19 appear?

With both Flu and COVID-19, it can take a few days to show symptoms after becoming infected, and both viruses can spread prior to symptoms becoming obvious. Symptoms of Flu usually appear within 1-4 days of infection. COVID-19 can take a bit longer, most often 4-5 days, but it can be as late as 10-14 days (thus the dreaded 2-week quarantine guidelines). 

How does COVID-19 spread?

Both viruses spread between people when they are within approximately 6 feet of each other (yes, I’m as tired as you of being told to stay 6 feet apart). The viruses usually spread when droplets of spit or snot created by talking, singing, chanting, and yelling travel from one person’s mouth or nose to another’s (yeah – gross). They can also spread when you touch a surface contaminated with the virus – such as shaking someone’s hand – then touch your face. COVID-19 seems to be much more contagious in certain groups, though current data suggests this is not true for young kids, thus my personal view that we should be okay to re-open schools (with precautions in place). 

How do you tell the difference between the Flu and COVID-19?

If you’ve reached this point and are wondering how in the world docs can tell the difference between Flu and COVID-19, I’m right there with you. That’s why testing is going to be such a big deal this fall and winter. At Pediatrics East, we can test for Flu and COVID-19. The ability to differentiate these two viruses will be incredibly important as we make decisions regarding who’s safe to return to school and who may need to stay home a few extra days.

disposable mask and hand sanitizer

How is COVID-19 treated?

When it comes to treatment, nothing beats staying hydrated, resting, and staying away from others so you don’t share your germs. Most of our bodies will fight off these viruses on their own. There are several outpatient treatments available for Flu that help to shorten the illness. While there are no outpatient treatments for COVID-19, a few inpatient treatments have shown promise, and researches around the world are working their tails off to discover more.

When will a COVID-19 vaccine be available?

Let’s round third and head for home. It’s time to talk about vaccines. We’ve all read about the worldwide race for a COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, these are all still in various stages of testing. We’ll let you know as soon as there’s any concrete information. We do have a yearly vaccine for Flu designed to protect against the 3-4 strains scientists anticipate will circulate each year. Flu is a devious little bugger, basically changing its camouflage every year. We make an educated guess, and some years’ vaccines end up being more effective than others. You’re right, none are 100% effective, though even while imperfect the Flu vaccine decreases your chance of catching Flu and lowers your risk of becoming severely ill if you become infected.

Common Misconceptions about Vaccines

Let’s hit one big misconception. You cannot (cannot means cannot) get the Flu from a Flu vaccine. The vaccine is made up of dead pieces of the virus. Catching the Flu from a Flu vaccine would be like getting attacked by the deer head mounted on your uncle’s living room wall. You can get body aches and mild fever from the Flu vaccine, and it’s always possible to catch a cold after getting the vaccine, but you cannot get the Flu from the Flu vaccine.

Bottom line: If you’re only ever going to get one Flu vaccine in your life, this is the year (even if you’re afraid of shots – looking at you dads out there).

Pediatrics East is Here to Help

If you’re keeping score, that was 800 words describing how hard it is to tell the difference between Flu and COVID-19. Nothing’s easy in 2020, right? If you have any questions, please call us, and if your child is sick, we’re always here to help. 



dr. daniel chathamAbout the Author

Dr. Daniel Chatham is a board-certified pediatrician who provides pediatric care for the Pediatrics East Arlington location. Dr. Chatham graduated from medical school from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He completed his pediatric residency at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center through the University of Tennessee where he was awarded the Russell Chesney Award for Excellence in Pediatrics.

Posted by Tim Flatt at 11:21
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