We are entering the first full flu season since the start of the COVID-19 health crisis and there’s concern among health care providers about what will happen when these two serious respiratory viruses cross paths, which has been referred to as a possible ‘twindemic.’
Part of the concern is distinguishing between COVID-19 and influenza, since both viruses share many of the same symptoms, making them nearly impossible to identify without testing.
“It is very difficult for even doctors to recognize the difference between COVID-19 and influenza, especially in children,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw. “We are encouraging parents to call your doctor’s office early on, as soon as you notice even one or two symptoms in your child. If you’re sure your kid has a sore throat, or you’re sure that your kid has a cough, we’d like to evaluate them.”
During last year’s flu season, 400,000 adults and children were hospitalized for influenza and 22,000 died in the United States. There is concern that another bad influenza season, coupled with an uptick in coronavirus, could have a major impact on the ability of community hospitals to care for those who are sick.
Protect yourself and your family
While there’s no vaccine yet to protect against COVID-19, there is an influenza vaccine. Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone 6-months and older.
“While vaccine efficacy can vary, studies show that flu vaccination reduces flu illness by 40 to 60%,” says pediatric infectious disease expert Dr. LoRanée Braun.
The flu shot doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get influenza, but it can significantly reduce the chances of being hospitalized or dying from the flu. In addition, many of the steps people are already taking to protect themselves against COVID-19 can also help protect you from influenza.
“Wearing a mask will reduce the spread of droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” says Dr. Braun. “Social distancing reduces the likelihood that droplets will reach another person’s nose or mouth, and good hand-washing reduces the chances that you’re going to transmit that virus.”
How can I tell if I have flu or COVID-19?
The best way to tell if you have influenza or COVID-19 is to get tested. Symptoms are virtually indistinguishable, with the notable exception that some people with COVID-19 lose their sense of taste and smell. People can also have either infection without symptoms—it’s nearly impossible to tell one from the other on your own. Testing helps your health care provider choose the best treatment and determines whether contact tracing is needed. The good news is that many health care providers who are doing COVID-19 tests should be able to test you for flu at the same time.
Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you have concerns or questions. Dr. Bradshaw says, “Everything you do personally to keep you and your family healthy is a huge help to everyone in the community. We really are all connected.”