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Preventing Illness During Flu Season

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues during flu season—October to April—both COVID-19 and the flu will be spreading at the same time. Overlake Clinics Infectious Disease Specialists Edward Leonard, MD, and Abdul Siddiqui, MD, address how to tell if you have the flu or COVID-19, how to prevent illness and what to do if you get sick.

How do I know if I have the flu or COVID-19? Can I have both at the same time?

Dr. Siddiqui: Both influenza and COVID-19 are contagious respiratory diseases that have similar symptoms, so it is difficult to distinguish between them and hard to diagnose which one you have based on symptoms alone. Like the flu, COVID-19 can cause fever/chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue (tiredness), sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches or muscle pain, headache, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. The most important difference to look for is the new loss of taste or smell, which occurs with COVID-19 and not influenza.

It is very possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. They are both acquired the same way—when someone you are in close contact with, who has either illness, releases respiratory droplets as they cough, sneeze or talk. In addition, human contact, like shaking hands or touching surfaces and objects that have these viruses on them and then touching your face can spread illness.

COVID-19 and the flu can result in severe illness and health complications. Older adults, those with certain underlying medical conditions and pregnant women are at highest risk.

Should I get a flu shot?

Dr. Leonard: Yes, everyone over the age of six months should get a flu vaccine to keep you and your family healthy.

The flu vaccine has its peak efficiency around six months after injection. However, it’s important to note that a flu vaccine won’t prevent COVID-19, and a vaccine for COVID-19 is not yet available. Since the flu and COVID-19 cause similar symptoms, being protected against flu through the vaccine can reduce symptoms that might be confused with those caused by COVID-19. By preventing the flu and reducing the severe effects of flu, this could also reduce the number of people needing to be hospitalized.

What else can I do to prevent illness?

Dr. Siddiqui: To prevent the spread of illness, it is crucial to get the flu vaccine and continue to follow hand hygiene, social distancing and masking guidelines. That is, wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable, wear a mask when outside of your home and keep six feet of distance when around others. Remember to avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

It’s also good to remember to practice healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, exercising and keeping stress in check.

What should I do if I get sick?  

Dr. Leonard: First and foremost, I recommend staying home from work if you feel unwell. We do see spread of the virus in the work environment, so isolating yourself as much as possible will help prevent the spread to others. Many of those with flu or COVID-19 can recover at home with rest and fluids.

However, seek medical attention if your symptoms are significant or they are getting worse. Both the flu and COVID-19 are potentially life-threatening. It's important to be assessed for these diseases and treated appropriately.

Taking preventive measures can help reduce your risk of flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses and keep you and your family healthy. To get your flu shot, schedule an appointment with Overlake Clinics.

Hear Dr. Leonard speak more about COVID-19 and flu in the video below.