As flu season approaches in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, now there’s an extra concern for the public and health officials — the possibility of a “twindemic.”
Now, add in the fact that symptoms of both illnesses are quite similar, and it makes it harder to know which patients may have — influenza, otherwise known as the flu, or COVID-19.
While Santa Clarita Valley health experts have noted the symptoms are similar, there are some differences, also.
What are the symptoms for both?
“COVID has symptoms that seem to get more severe than a regular flu and, obviously, created a pandemic that we don’t get every year when we get the flu,” said Dr. Stephen De Vita, a Kaiser Permanente of Southern California Santa Clarita Family Medicine physician and assistant area medical director.
Even so, symptoms for both illnesses are often described by doctors, including De Vita, as “flu-like.”
“Everybody knows what that means,” De Vita added. “It means fever, it means body aches and COVID does have those symptoms, as does influenza. I think that’s why a lot of people say it just feels like the flu, and I think that’s where it gets confusing for people.”
Dr. Cory Spurlock, Exer Urgent Care’s chief medical officer, agreed, adding these similarities occur due to the fact that they are both respiratory viruses.
“COVID we think tends to spread easier, and can cause more serious illness quicker in some older patients or other subsets of patients that are at higher risk,” Spurlock added. “COVID can also often take longer to show symptoms.”
Dr. Jordan Michelena of Henry Mayo Newhall Urgent Care Center said while it’s very hard to just look at the symptoms and distinguish one from the other, there is one notable addition to the COVID-19 symptoms.
“The one that really distinguishes COVID-19 from really any other virus that we know is the loss of taste and smell,” Michelena added. “Sometimes that happens when you have congestion just because those are very interrelated symptoms, but with COVID-19, that’s really the unique symptom.”
If De Vita has a patient with flu-like symptoms, or even just a sore throat, and they said they lost their sense of taste or smell, immediately he said he’d be concerned about COVID-19.
“It’s really going to be difficult to distinguish without a test, and we’ll certainly be testing most patients with symptoms for COVID and flu in order to try to distinguish the two so we can give people guidance that’s correct,” De Vita added.
Take preventative measures so you don’t get either
“The steps we are all taking to prevent transmission of COVID-19 also help prevent transmission of influenza,” L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a prepared statement. “We all have tools that work to limit the spread of COVID-19 and flu: wearing face coverings, keeping physical distance of at least 6 feet whenever you are out of your home and around others, frequent handwashing, and avoiding large crowds.”
In addition, Spurlock highlighted the importance of good self care — plenty of fluids, vitamins, etc.
“It’s good practice when you’re sick with anything not to go to work, not to go to social events, not to go out and spread whatever you’re sick with,” Michelena added. “People appreciate not catching the cold, just as much as they appreciate not getting COVID. Now, the life-threatening mortality risk between the two of those is a little bit different, of course.”
De Vita and Spurlock also agreed, adding that this can help to protect your loved ones or friends from catching these illnesses, as though you may be able to tolerate it, they may not.
“With COVID, everybody knows, ‘If I catch COVID, I have to worry about grandma,’ and that’s the same with the flu, but COVID takes that to a different level,” De Vita said. “That’s where we have to just take care of each other in times like this, and that’s what it’s really about.”
What about the flu shot?
Because both the flu and COVID-19 are present in L.A. County this year, it’s vital we protect ourselves to prevent a serious flu season coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s why doctors are saying it’s more important than ever this year to get the flu shot.
Getting the flu shot can help medical professionals to make a diagnosis if you do end up getting sick later on, Michelena and De Vita agreed.
“The flu vaccine is key because if you vaccinate yourself against the flu, you’re gonna decrease your chance of getting the flu, so if you get those symptoms, it’s going to be more likely it’s COVID, and you’ll know what to do,” De Vita said.
With COVID-19 and the flu spreading at the same time, doctors warn that contracting both illnesses at the same time — which has been found to be possible — could lead to more serious complications.
“If you’re vaccinated for the flu, and then you also get COVID-19, you’ll probably have an easier time during that infection period than if you didn’t get vaccinated for the flu and had both,” Michelena said. “So if you have two diseases, it’s easier if your body is already able and set up to fight one of the diseases.”
Everyone 6 months and older should be immunized against the flu, and anyone can get flu, even healthy people, but people at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications include: those 65 years and older, pregnant women, children younger than 5 years old and people with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or HIV.
For more information on the flu versus COVID-19, visit cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm or publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/FluSeason. To get your flu shot, visit your doctor, a pharmacy or a flu immunization clinic, where both walk-up and drive-thru service is available. To find a low-cost, or free, immunization, call 2-1-1 or go to PreventFluLA.com.