The Seasonal Flu, Colds, COVID-19 & You

woman on couch with flu or covid 19?

Yes, the old-fashioned flu season is approaching, and even while we are focused on the coronavirus, let’s remember that influenza can also be a dangerous illness. Most of the time flu activity starts in October, and peaks between December and February, but cases can continue into the early spring.

Is it COVID-19 or The Flu?

Many people will be asking that question this winter as we inevitably get an increase in the seasonal flu. Influenza and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses. Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and you may need to get a COVID-19 test to help confirm a diagnosis. 

2 Key Differences

Flu and COVID-19 share many symptoms, but these 2 are common in COVID-19 and NOT usually related to seasonal flu

  1. Shortness of breath – Occurs with COVID-19 and is not usually a flu related symptom unless you have an underlying respiratory condition.
  2. Loss of sense of taste and/or smell – this is common with COVID-19 but not with the flu.

Flu can cause mild to severe illness, and can at times be fatal especially for people who are over 75 or very young and those with underlying respiratory conditions, such as COPD. The flu is not typically dangerous for people with well controlled asthma. 

Is it a cold or the flu?

If you’re wondering if it’s a cold or the flu, see my article from last November: 

Unlike a cold, flu can have a rapid onset of symptoms which often include:  

  • fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches
  • headaches
  • fatigue (tiredness)
  • vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

Do Get a Flu Vaccine Soon

One positive from our terrible battle with COVID-19 may be that people are now more aware of the safety and value of vaccines and interested in how they work. In a bad flu season, 40 million to 50 million Americans may catch the flu, with some 800,000 requiring hospitalization, according to Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, an infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco.

The flu still results in 30,000 to 60,000 Americans dying every year. “Here we have a disease, influenza, a scourge of humankind going back centuries,” said epidemiologist George Rutherford, MD, also at UCSF. “We have a vaccine that’s pretty effective. There’s no reason for us to be filling our ICUs with people with influenza who didn’t get vaccinated.”

Flu vaccines protect against the three or four viruses (depending on the vaccine) that research suggests will be most common in the upcoming season.

From the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

For the 2020-2021 flu season, providers may choose to administer any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine (IIV, RIV4, or LAIV4) with no preference for any one vaccine over another.

Vaccine options this season include:

  • Standard dose flu shots.
  • High-dose shots for people 65 years and older. 
  • In the United States, Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent is licensed only for persons aged 65 years and older. Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent is not recommended for persons with a history of severe allergic reaction to the vaccine or to ingredients other than eggs.
  • Shots made with adjuvant for people 65 years and older. 
  • They are manufactured using an egg-based process (like most flu vaccines), and are formulated with an adjuvant called MF59. An adjuvant is an ingredient added to a vaccine that helps create a stronger immune response to vaccination.
  • Shots made with virus grown in cell culture. 
  • No eggs are involved in the production of this vaccine.
  • Shots made using a vaccine production technology (recombinant vaccine) 
  • These do not require having a candidate vaccine virus (CVV) sample to produce.
  • Live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV). – 
  • A vaccine made with attenuated (weakened) live virus that is given by nasal spray.

If we all wear our masks and keep 6 to 10 feet from others, and wash our hands frequently we can lessen the spread of both the flu and the coronavirus this fall and winter.