COVID-19 versus the flu: spotting the differences

COVID-19 versus the flu: spotting the differences

While flu season is always difficult to navigate, this year has been a bit more complex with the added stress of the global pandemic. Both are respiratory viruses that produce similar symptoms, and waking up with a sore throat or a fever may leave you wondering whether it’s the flu or COVID-19.Understanding the similarities and differences between the two may help you determine which virus you’re dealing with.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both the flu and COVID-19 may present with symptoms such as fever or chills, cough, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. However, the last two symptoms relating to digestion are more common in children than adults.

“Influenza and COVID-19 share many of the same symptoms. One of the most distinct characteristics that occur with COVID-19 is the sudden loss of taste and smell,” said Dr. Donna O’Shea, medical director for UCS Population Health. “It also may take longer to develop symptoms when you have COVID-19 versus the flu. With flu, symptoms typically develop within four days of infection. With COVID-19, symptoms may appear as late as 14 days after exposure. People with COVID-19 may also be contagious and at risk for spreading the virus longer.”

While it’s possible to contract the flu all year round, flu viruses are most common in the fall and winter, and with the pandemic still in full force, it is more important than ever to protect against both viruses. Dr. Donna O’Shea and Dr. Jennifer Brueckner, leaders of the National Flu Core Team for UnitedHealthcare, share the following tips to help avoid getting influenza and COVID-19:

  • Consider getting your flu shot as soon as possible this fall. You can find a UnitedHealthcare vaccination location at the link below.
  • Wear a face covering at indoor public places or when you’re within six feet of others and avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.
  • Stay home and self-isolate if you’re feeling symptoms.
  • Support your overall health by eating healthier, getting adequate sleep, and managing your stress levels.

“If you think you have symptoms of the flu or COVID-19, call your doctor,” Dr. O’Shea said. “Most employers and health plans offer 24-hour telehealth providers who can help you determine the next step that is right for you.”

Taking these precautions is an important step to help prevent the spread of these highly contagious viruses. For more information about COVID-19 vs. the flu, visit

Link to UnitedHealthcare vaccination locations: