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Differentiating Between Seasonal Illnesses Part 1: COVID and Flu

The 2022-23 flu season started early and aggressively; breaking records that hadn’t been topped for almost two decades. By mid-November, widespread flu activity and hospitalizations were higher than they had been in a decade. Complicating matters even more was a concurrent outbreak of RSV and continued struggles with COVID-19.

These increases in respiratory illness were largely due to deferred first-time infections among children, resulting from preventive measures that were taken during the pandemic that provided a reprieve from infection. A widespread return to schools and offices, and a significant drop in masking, created perfect storm conditions, per se, for a viral outbreak.

And we’re still in the thick of cold and flu season. The challenging part, not just for parents, but for everyone with a cough or a sniffle or a scratchy throat is knowing how to differentiate between seasonal illnesses such as cold and flu. It can be tricky, but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind that can help to ease fears and offer guidance.

Though both respiratory illnesses are caused by different viruses (the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 for COVID and the influenza virus for the flu), they share several common symptoms, which can be mild or severe:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Congestion
  • Muscle soreness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea (more common in children than adults)

There are a few notable differences, however:

  • Symptoms for COVID typically appear between 2-14 days after exposure, compared to 1-4 days for the flu. The onset of flu symptoms is often sudden, however, whereas COVID, RSV, and cold symptoms are more gradual.
  • COVID-19 is also contagious for a longer period, making it easier to spread than the flu.
  • COVID can result in the loss of taste and/or smell.
  • COVID is more likely to lead to severe illness among unvaccinated and older individuals.

It is important to keep in mind that symptoms, alone, are not sufficient to determine whether you have contracted COVID-19 or the flu (or any other respiratory illness, for that matter). And it is possible – though unlikely – for illnesses to overlap.

The Centers for Disease Control continues to stress how important specific testing is to diagnose both flu and COVID, allowing those who are sick to receive proper treatment.

Vaccination, too, is critical to protect against flu and COVID-19. Quality First Urgent Care continues to offer comprehensive COVID testing services, as well as influenza vaccinations on site. Contact our office today to learn more.

This post is part one of a two-part series on seasonal illnesses. Next: RSV, Asthma, and the Common Cold.