Are flu symptoms the same as the symptoms for COVID-19?

flu symptoms COVID-19
Photo via CDC
  • Both are respiratory illnesses but aren’t caused by the same kind of virus
  • Similar symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, body aches
  • Flu symptoms reveal themselves quicker than those of the coronavirus

Even though the flu virus spreads all throughout the year in the United States, according to the CDC, the most common strains circulate during the fall and winter time, and they begin to ramp up around October. With flu season just around the corner while the country experiences astronomical COVID-19 numbers—now at nearly 5.5 million cases, about one-fourth of coronavirus cases worldwide—it’s easy to get confused between the symptoms of the two ailments. How do you differentiate between the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19, and just how similar are the two?

Influenza (aka the flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but the viruses that cause them are totally different. A person can get the flu when they are infected by an influenza virus (there are many types), and can contract COVID-19 when they are infected by a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.

Flu symptom vs. COVID-19 symptom similarities

The flu and COVID-19 can both present different levels of signs and symptoms. Some of the symptoms that can appear in both coronavirus and flu cases include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny or congested nose, body aches, muscle pain, and headache. People may also experience vomiting and diarrhea, but that’s reportedly more common in kids. According to John Hopkins Medicine, in extreme cases, both illnesses can result in pneumonia. In rare cases, they can even be fatal.

Patients who either have the novel coronavirus or the flu can also appear asymptomatic (show no symptoms), which makes it even more difficult to distinguish between the two in the early stages. To be on the safe side, the CDC recommends testing to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis.

When do the symptoms show up?

The flu is more likely to present itself with a sudden onset of high fever, undeniable headache, and body aches. Symptoms usually develop between one to four days after infection.

In contrast, the coronavirus might develop more slowly, first appearing as a mild headache and/or body ache. You might also get a mild fever (or none at all). Usually, symptoms show up five days after somebody is infected but can appear between 2-14 days after infection.

Coronavirus also has an added symptom of loss of taste or smell.

Flu and COVID-19 spread prevention

While a flu vaccine is readily available and considered highly effective in preventing or lessening the effects of most flu viruses, there is still no vaccine for COVID-19 available as of this writing. However, development and testing for one is ongoing in the U.S. and in various parts of the world.

You can prevent the spread of both the flu and COVID-19 by exercising thorough hand hygiene, coughing into the crook of your elbow, staying at home if you feel symptomatic, and limiting contact with people who may be infected.

Sources: CDC [1, 2, 3], John Hopkins Medicine, Yale New Haven Health, New York Times

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