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The Difference Between COVID-19 and the Flu

The 2020-2021 influenza season was almost nonexistent, as figures collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there were about 2,000 cases of the flu reported across the country from October 2020 to April 2021. That’s due to social distancing and mask-wearing measures in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. In comparison, the coronavirus sickened more people faster in a shorter time frame.

While there are similarities between the new coronavirus and the flu, there are significant differences as well.

Differences

  • Speed of transmission: COVID-19 is considered more contagious than the flu virus, and has been observed to have more superspreading events than the flu. Additionally, if a person has COVID-19, they could be contagious for a longer time than if they had the flu.
  • Complications: While there can be complications from both the flu and COVID-19, there are differences. COVID-19, can cause blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart or brain, as well as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in children and adults. Additionally, some people may experience “long COVID” — a range of symptoms that can last for weeks or months.
  • Treatments: While there are several antiviral therapeutic medications available to treat the flu, there is only one antiviral agent that has FDA approval to treat COVID-19.
  • Virus: COVID-19 is caused by a newly discovered strain of coronavirus, which is called SARS-COV-2. In humans, the flu is caused by two types of virus: influenza A and influenza B. There are subtypes of each. For example, H1N1 is a subtype of influenza A and was responsible for the 2009 flu pandemic.

Similarities

  • At-risk populations: People most at-risk for severe illness from the flu and from COVID-19 are pregnant people, older adults and people with certain underlying medical conditions, including infants and children. However, healthy individuals can become severely sick from COVID-19.
  • Symptoms: Both COVID-19 and the flu cause many of the same respiratory disease symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, runny nose, muscle or body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and fatigue. However, COVID-19 could also cause a loss of taste or smell.
  • Transmission method: Both COVID-19 and the flu are transmitted by droplets through close contact. This can be through large and small particles containing the virus that are expelled when a person who is contagious coughs, sneezes or talks. This means the same precautions will work against both illnesses: frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing face coverings.
  • Available vaccine: There are vaccines available for COVID-19 and the flu.

The Importance of the Flu Shot During the Pandemic

Though the flu shot will not protect individuals against COVID-19, the vaccine has many other important benefits. Having more people vaccinated against the seasonal flu will decrease the amount of people who get seriously ill from the flu this winter. As experts predict strained health care resources from new COVID-19 cases, keeping people healthy from other seasonal illnesses is especially critical.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flu shots for everyone ages 6 months old and up. During the 2018-2019 flu season, 62.6% of children ages 6-17 years old and 43.5% of adults received a flu vaccine nationally, according to the CDC. The CDC estimates that increasing the number of people vaccinated – even by five percentage points – could prevent thousands of hospitalizations from the flu.

Each year, the flu shot helps protect individuals against the dominant strains of the flu virus that experts predict will be the most active during the fall, winter and early spring months. Flu season typically begins in October and peaks in December and February – though cases can continue through the spring. The 2021-2022 flu vaccine is available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and clinics, and the CDC recommends getting the shot as early as September or October.

Dr. S. George Kipa, MD, is the deputy chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.  

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