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Differences between Covid-19 and the Flu
Published: 31st December, 2020
When Covid-19 began to rise in numbers in the UK in March, we recognised the symptoms; a high temperature, a continuous cough, and a loss in change or smell. However, with winter now in full swing, it can be hard to tell what is Covid-19, and what is the Flu. The Flu is a common infection which will often get better on its own but can sometimes cause people to get very ill which is why it is important to understand its symptoms. Cold weather influences the way our immune systems deal with viruses, and a lack of humidity in the air helps viruses thrive, including infections such as the flu.
Covid-19 and the flu are, oftentimes, close in the symptoms they present, which can be worrying and make you feel unsure what to do. If you are showing symptoms of Covid-19, whether you think it’s the flu or not, you must follow NHS guidelines for testing and self isolation. In this article, we have gathered evidence to help you understand how to identify the key differences between Covid-19 and the Flu.
Why is it important to recognise Covid-19?
Covid-19 is a new strain of Coronavirus, with its official name being SARS-CoV-2. The first reported case of Covid-19 is understood to have been on 31st December 2019 in Wuhan, China. There are four other strains of Coronavirus that are very common and usually only cause mild symptoms, however, Covid-19 can cause severe symptoms and illness.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Most people who become infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. One of the concerns is that older people or those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness. For those who do develop symptoms, it is estimated that about 80% will recover from the illness without the need for hospital treatment and 15% will become seriously ill and require oxygen support, while 5% become critically ill and need intensive care.
For many, Covid symptoms are mild and often go unnoticed, therefore it is even more important to recognise if you have it, or have been exposed to it, so you can protect vulnerable people who may be more likely to become seriously ill from the virus. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the differences.
The Flu: Symptoms
The influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is often downplayed as nothing more than a cold and a few days of feeling ill. In general the flu gets better by itself, but like Covid-19, the flu does affect older and vulnerable people more than young and healthy people.
The flu is a common respiratory virus that affects your throat, nose and lungs, and tends to last 5-7 days. There is a vaccination available for the seasonal flu, which gives the best protection against the flu. You can still get the flu after the vaccination, but the symptoms will be milder and not last as long.
According to the NHS, common symptoms of the Flu include: a sudden high temperature of 38C or above, an aching body, feeling tired or exhausted, a dry cough and a sore throat.
As well as this, additional symptoms include headaches, fatigue, aches and pains and a runny nose. There are a variety of symptoms for the flu, but these are the most common.
The symptoms of Covid-19 and the Flu do overlap, so it is key to be able to differentiate between the two. Sometimes, you may not be able to tell the difference which means you should treat it as a symptom of Covid-19 and follow NHS guidelines accordingly.
The NHS identifies the main symptoms of Covid-19 as:
A high temperature – this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature).
A new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual).
A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – this means you've noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), other, less common symptoms of Covid-19 include: Loss of taste or smell, nasal congestion, conjunctivitis (also known as red eyes), sore throat, headache, muscle or joint pain, different types of skin rash, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, chills or dizziness.
Some people even experience symptoms, including fatigue, respiratory and neurological problems, once the disease has gone, this is known as ‘long Covid.’
Differences between Covid-19 and the Flu
Despite Covid-19 and the flu being similar in the symptoms they present, there are still some differences that help to distinguish between them.
Lack of taste and smell
Though you may lose your taste and smell when suffering from the flu, it has been suggested by research that Covid-19’s smell and taste loss is much more profound.
A study was carried out by Lead investigator Prof Carl Philpott, from the University of East Anglia. He carried out smell and taste tests on 30 volunteers: 10 with Covid-19, 10 with bad colds and 10 healthy people with no cold or flu symptoms.
Smell loss was found to be much more profound in the Covid-19 patients. They were less able to identify smells, and they were not able to discern bitter or sweet tastes at all.
Prof Philpott said: “There really do appear to be distinguishing features that set the coronavirus apart from other respiratory viruses.
“This is very exciting because it means that smell and taste tests could be used to discriminate between Covid-19 patients and people with a regular cold or flu.”
The main symptoms of Covid-19
The main three symptoms of Covid-19 are a lack of taste and/or smell, a sore throat and a continuous cough, therefore it is possible that if your symptoms are none of the above, it could be the flu. However, if you are unsure, you should get tested and self isolate, according to government guidelines.
Time period: How long do symptoms last?
Another big difference is that flu symptoms typically last 1- 4 days, whereas symptoms for Covid-19 can develop over 1-14 days.
Medical news today reported that “the median incubation period for COVID-19 is 5.1 days”, and “As a point of comparison, the incubation period for a cold is 1–3 days.”
If you have been experiencing symptoms for over 3 days, you should self isolate and consider taking a Covid test, as there could be a possibility that you have Covid.
When to act
Based on government guidance, if you display any symptoms of Covid-19; cough, a loss of taste and smell or a high temperature, you should self isolate immediately and arrange a test. You can do this online or by calling 111.
If you are not sure, and believe you may just have the flu, you should arrange to take a covid-19 test to rule out the possibility and self isolate until you have received a negative result. If you have any symptoms of Covid-19 please do not visit a pharmacy or your GP surgery.
For advice or support, call you GP surgery or get in touch with us!