Learn to tell the difference between a common cold, the flu, and COVID-19—and stay as safe as possible.
This year’s cold and flu season is a lot more complicated due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 39 million cases of influenza (a viral disease that attacks the nose, throat, and lungs). Most adults will get the common cold about twice a year—though children get it more often. This begs the question: What will cold and flu season be like during the pandemic?
How bad will flu season be in the U.S. this year?
Kelly Fradin, M.D., author of Parenting in A Pandemic: How to Help Your Family Through COVID-19, looks for clues from Australia—where the flu season occurs before ours. “What we’ve seen in Australia is that there has been ninety-eight percent less flu than normal,” she says. “It’s been attributed to all the precautions that have been in place for coronavirus.”
Sharon Nachman, M.D., chief of the division of pediatrics infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, says the severity of flu season in the U.S. will depend on the individual—and what safety precautions they take.
“Among populations that are not going to be wearing masks, the flu season has good potential to be bad. We have a lot of people indoors, the weather’s getting colder, and it catches easily in households,” Dr. Nachman says. “However, among those populations that are being very careful by wearing masks and washing their hands, the potential is that we will have low transmission in those settings.”
Get the flu shot during COVID-19
Doctors recommend adults and children ages 6 months and older get the flu shot. Although there are no guarantees that the shot will prevent the flu, the illness won’t be as severe.
“Of the children who died last year of flu, more than eighty percent of them did not receive any flu vaccine,” Dr. Nachman says. “The flu vaccine may not prevent all disease, but it’s going to work hard at preventing hospitalizations, and will work even harder at preventing death.”
Shirin Peters, M.D., an internal medicine specialist, and founder, medical director, and primary care physician at Bethany Medical Clinic of New York, agrees that the flu shot is essential this year, “as it will prevent my patients from needing to seek care in a busy urgent care or emergency room, where they may be exposed to COVID-19 and other infectious illness.”
Is it a cold, flu, or COVID-19?
The symptoms for all three illnesses are similar, according to doctors including Myron Rolle, M.D., a resident at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General.
“Symptoms of the flu and cold are similar and often include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle and body aches, headaches, and fatigue, but the flu is more intense and comes on more abruptly,” Dr. Rolle said. These symptoms are so similar to those of COVID-19, that it’s often hard to make a diagnosis.
One distinguishing symptom of COVID-19 is anosmia—loss of smell (and often taste as well). Not all COVID-infected patients get anosmia and because the flu can cause a stuffy nose, it may still be a symptom that causes confusion.
Dr. Rolle recommends getting tested for COVID-19 if any flu-like symptoms occur in adults or kids. And don’t worry—tests will be available, Dr. Nachman says. “Many doctors are now starting to get rapid testing abilities in their offices, similar to rapid testing for flu and strep throat.” She believes that the frequency and ease of COVID tests will only increase. “The more resources to do this that are available, the more doctors are going to feel comfortable with testing.”
Take all COVID-19 precautions during flu season
As flu and cold season approaches, it’s more important than ever to take precautions such as washing your hands, wearing face masks, and social distancing. “The good news is that the same measures that help prevent the spread of COVID-19 can also help prevent the spread of the cold and flu viruses,” says Travis Stork, M.D., an emergency medicine physician.
And if you or your child get sick, doctors recommend rest, hydration, and a good diet to help your immune system. “Over the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with body aches and fever,” Dr. Stork says. “Eat a wholesome diet with plant-based foods that are loaded with antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables which will help your immune system fight off the infection. Get plenty of rest and if you get concerned, call your doctor.”
Barbara Russo is a freelance writer who holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from the City University of New York. She enjoys playing guitar, following current events, and hanging out with her pet rabbits.
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