Nov 23, 2020, 11:17:50 AM CST Oct 11, 2021, 12:47:50 PM CDT

Flu vs. COVID-19: What parents should know

Learn the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and influenza and ways to keep your family healthy

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Every fall and winter, parents prepare for flu season and take steps to protect their family. This year, COVID‑19 is causing unique concerns and questions, including how to tell the difference between the two respiratory illnesses.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of influenza (flu) and COVID‑19 are similar, and there is no simple way to tell them apart. However, it can be helpful to understand the differences between the viruses and how they can affect children. Learn more about navigating flu season during the coronavirus pandemic and ways to keep your family healthy.

How is coronavirus different from flu?

Both COVID‑19 and flu are respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Flu is caused by influenza viruses, while COVID‑19 is caused by coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).

What are the symptoms of COVID vs. flu?

Symptoms of flu and COVID‑19 can vary, ranging from mild or no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common symptoms between flu and COVID‑19 can include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Possible vomiting and diarrhea, which may be more common in children than adults

One symptom of COVID‑19 that is different from flu is that some people with COVID‑19 may experience a change in or loss of taste or smell.

Preeti Sharma, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, also reminds parents to watch for a common tell-tale sign of flu. "One thing to remember about influenza is that it often comes on very quickly," she says. "So, you might be feeling great, and then suddenly experience fever, body aches and chills. But truly, it's hard to distinguish between the viruses."

Flu and COVID‑19 share similar signs and symptoms, and it can be hard to diagnose based on symptoms alone. It is also possible to have both COVID‑19 and flu at the same time. If you are concerned about your child's symptoms, contact your health care provider for guidance. Testing may be needed to determine whether it's flu or COVID‑19.

"It's important to keep track of symptoms in yourself and your child," Dr. Sharma says. "If symptoms present, talk to your health care provider and let their guidance move you towards a plan."

How do flu and COVID‑19 spread?

It's possible for a person to spread both flu and COVID‑19 before they experience any symptoms. However, people with COVID‑19 may remain contagious for a longer period than those with the flu.

While flu and COVID‑19 may spread in similar ways, the CDC states that COVID‑19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu. What’s more, the newer Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads more easily than previous versions of the virus – and it may cause more than twice as many infections of COVID‑19, according to the CDC.

Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health and Professor at UT Southwestern, urges individuals to take precautions to not only protect themselves, but also their family members against the spread of COVID‑19 and flu.

"The greatest risk of getting COVID‑19 or the flu is having a household contact with COVID‑19 or flu," explains Dr. Kahn. "Therefore, it is important to continue to be vigilant when it comes to good health practices, such as mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing. In the case of flu and COVID‑19, a vaccination not only protects the individual but also their household members. This is particularly important for individuals who live with someone who falls into a risk category or is not eligible for the vaccines."

Who is at highest risk for severe illness from COVID‑19 and flu?

Both COVID‑19 and flu can cause severe illness and complications. According to the CDC, individuals at the highest risk for severe illness from both flu and COVID‑19 include:

  • Older adults
  • People with certain underlying medical conditions (including infants and children)
  • Pregnant people

The CDC warns that the greatest risk of transmission for COVID‑19 is among unvaccinated people, including children under age 12 who cannot yet get the COVID‑19 vaccine.

Children with underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for illness from both the flu and COVID‑19. School-aged children infected with COVID‑19 have higher risk of developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a rare but serious complication from COVID‑19.

How to prevent flu and COVID‑19

Getting your flu shot during the 2021-2022 season is more important than ever since COVID‑19 is still circulating. The flu vaccine does not prevent COVID‑19, but it will reduce the burden of flu cases and conserve medical resources for those who become infected with COVID‑19.

"Preventing that which we can prevent is key," Dr. Sharma says. "The most important way to prevent flu is by getting an influenza vaccination. Getting a flu shot for yourself and your children will prevent a lot of the serious complications related to flu."

Anyone ages 12 years and older should get the COVID‑19 vaccine. Getting your child vaccinated is the best way to prevent COVID‑19. You can visit vaccines.gov to find a COVID‑19 vaccine near you. Pfizer has submitted a request to the FDA to authorize the vaccine for use in children ages 5-11. It is not yet known when approval will happen for this age group, but a decision is anticipated this fall.

Flu vaccines and COVID‑19 vaccines can be given at the same time per CDC guidelines.

Your family can also take everyday actions to prevent illness. Stop the spread of germs by:

  • Washing your hands often
  • Covering coughs and sneezes
  • Covering your mouth and nose with a face mask when around others to prevent the spread of COVID‑19
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
  • Monitoring your health by being alert for symptoms
  • Avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick and staying home if you are sick

#Flu and #COVID19 share similar symptoms, and it can be hard to diagnose based on symptoms alone. Learn ways to keep your family healthy from @Childrens.

Learn more about COVID‑19 and flu

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub or our flu resources page.

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