Disclaimer: At UPMC HealthBeat, we strive to provide the most up-to-date facts in our stories when we publish them. We also make updates to our content as information changes. However, education about COVID-19 can shift quickly based on new data, emerging variants, or other factors. The information in this story was accurate as of its publish date. We also encourage you to visit other reliable websites for updated information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and your state and local governments.
You’ve started coughing, you have a fever, and you feel tired all the time. You think you probably have some kind of respiratory illness — but is it the flu or COVID-19?
Many symptoms overlap between the flu and COVID-19, such as fever, cough, and tiredness. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for anyone, including a doctor, to tell the difference from symptoms alone.
But you can help your health care providers to help you — and help them tell if you need a COVID-19 test. Pay attention to your symptoms, including when they start, so your doctor can use that information to determine what you need to do.
Flu Symptoms vs. COVID-19 Symptoms
It’s possible to have very mild or very severe symptoms with either the flu or COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The following symptoms are especially common with flu and COVID-19.
- Shortness of breath.
- Sore throat.
- Runny or stuffy nose.
- Muscle pain or body aches.
- Vomiting, diarrhea, or feeling sick to your stomach.
- Suddenly losing your sense of smell or taste. (This happens more often with COVID-19 but happens with other diseases, too.)
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Risk of Death from COVID-19 and the Flu
About one in every 1,000 people who have flu dies from the disease. The risk of dying from COVID-19 is several times greater than the risk of dying from the flu, according to the CDC. Scientists are still learning how much deadlier COVID-19 is, and the risk of death can vary greatly based on personal characteristics.
These people have a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 or the flu:
- Older adults.
- People with other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, obesity, and other issues.
The risk of dying from COVID-19 is very different depending on your age. The older someone is, the higher their risk of death from COVID-19, especially over age 50. The likelihood of dying from COVID-19 is much lower among younger people.
It is possible to have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. Scientists don’t yet know how often this occurs or the risks of having both diseases.
How Long the Flu and COVID-19 Last
Another difference between the flu and COVID-19 is how long people are sick with the disease. Unvaccinated people with the flu are usually sick for at least a week or two. They may be sick for longer if they develop complications or need to be admitted to the hospital.
How long someone can be sick with COVID-19 varies a lot more. Some people have no symptoms or very mild symptoms; they should focus mostly on not spreading the disease to others. Other people can be sick for two to six weeks or become so sick that they need hospitalization.
What to Do If You Think You Have the Flu or COVID-19
If you think you might have COVID-19, you should call your primary care doctor and tell them your symptoms. They will tell you whether to get a COVID-19 test and to isolate at home. You also may be a candidate for COVID-19 treatment like monoclonal antibodies.
Your doctor may or may not recommend a flu test. Your provider also might or might not recommend an anti-viral medication to treat the flu. The best way to treat the flu at home is to rest and drink plenty of water and other clear fluids.
These are the most important steps to take if you think you might have COVID-19:
- Stay at home from work or school.
- Avoid going out in public. If you have to, wear a mask.
- Call your primary care doctor.
- Get tested for COVID-19.
- Pay attention to symptoms that require you to go to the hospital.
If you experience any of the emergency warning signs below, you should go to the hospital:
- Trouble breathing.
- Shortness of breath.
- Pain or pressure in your chest or stomach that won’t stop.
- Dizziness or confusion that won’t go away.
- Not being able to pee.
- Severe pain in your muscles.
- Feeling extremely weak or unable to balance.
- A cough or fever that first gets better and then come back or gets worse.
- If symptoms of another condition you already have get worse.
Concerned about your symptoms? Visit UPMC.com/COVID19 to use our COVID-19 symptom checker tool.
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