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Think You Might Have Regular Old Flu? You’re Gonna Need to Get COVID Tested Anyway

The flu and COVID-19 can have almost exactly the same symptoms, so there’s only one good way to know for sure what you’re sick with

It’s really, really important to get your flu shot this year, even more so than in previous years. While the flu shot won’t protect you from COVID, it’s still a proven way to lessen the odds of getting sick and ensuring that health-care professionals can continue to focus their efforts on the pandemic. On top of the flu shot, hopefully all that careful handwashing and social distancing you’re continuing to do will mean you and your family avoid the flu entirely this year. But say you start feeling a little feverish one day this winter, or maybe develop a cough and runny nose. How are you supposed to know whether this is your run-of-the-mill flu, or a case of COVID-19

There’s only one sure-fire way to find out, and that’s by getting tested. The flu and COVID can have very similar symptoms: Loss of taste or smell is one of the few symptoms that distinguishes COVID from the flu, but it doesn’t appear in all cases. It typically takes a few more days for COVID symptoms to develop after exposure compared to the flu, but both can emerge within the same two- to five-day window.  According to the CDC, some of the shared symptoms between the two illnesses include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, chills, sore throat, headache and occasionally stomach issues. Both illnesses can present all of these symptoms, or only a select few. For that reason, it’s almost impossible to distinguish them based on symptoms alone. 

Fortunately, there are tests for COVID and the flu. Because COVID might present a higher risk of complications for yourself and those around you, it’s a bit more important to know whether you definitely have COVID or not, rather than whether you have the flu or not. It’s also possible to have the flu and COVID at the same time, meaning that just getting a flu test alone might not be the best use of your time. Regardless, your doctor is going to be the one to make these decisions for you. If ensuring that you do in fact have the flu becomes essential for your treatment, they may have you tested for the flu specifically. 

For both COVID and the flu, one of the main purposes of testing is to mitigate spread. Both can be deadly for particular groups, but severity and recovery can vary widely between the two. If you start feeling sick this winter, getting a COVID test will at least help you ascertain whether you need to potentially put yourself in a strict quarantine for weeks at a time and take part in contact-tracing, or whether you can likely expect to recover within a few days. Either way, experiencing any symptoms that align with COVID — even if it might just be a cold — is good cause to reach out to your doctor to determine your course of action.