For the last six months, every potential sniffle from my two kids has sent me into a flurry of worry, wondering whether that sniffle is allergies or COVID? Do I give an allergy pill or monitor for breathing and post viral inflammation symptoms? Every time I’m just a little too tired to function, I can’t help but ask whether this exhaustion is a byproduct of solo parenting during a pandemic or COVID? Any hint of a scratchy throat, an extra sneeze, or an upset stomach has been a reason to worry, to ask is it this very treatable no big deal condition or is it COVID?
But for the last six months, I haven’t worried about the flu. In most parts of the United States, COVID spiked long after flu season had wound down for the year. The flu was one less thing to worry about.
Well, now that’s all changing. Labor Day Weekend is over. The nights are growing cooler and the days are becoming noticeably shorter. Flu season is fast approaching.
Experts are warning of a “twindemic”—a coronavirus-flu convergence—coming for us in the fall if we don’t get our COVID-19 outbreak under control. This means hospitals will be overwhelmed by patients who have either COVID or the flu, and even patients who are infected with both viruses. Complicating the matter for healthcare workers is that it’s difficult to tell COVID apart from the flu. They share many of the same symptoms: cough, fever, chills—to name a few. Parents, too, will have a hard time distinguishing whether their child’s symptoms are due to a cold, the flu, or COVID.
Given that COVID-19 is a more deadly virus than the flu, and we have a vaccine and orally administered antiviral medications to shorten the duration of the flu but nothing comparable for COVID, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between the two viruses. The flu can be treated.
The two distinguishing symptoms of COVID are sudden loss of taste and smell and dyspnea, which is difficulty breathing.
A recent study out of Europe found that approximately 85% of people with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 reported experiencing a loss of taste and smell. While the flu and even the common cold can cause someone to loss their sense of smell, the loss of smell associated with COVID-19 is more profound and can occur without a simultaneous stuffy nose.
Patients with COVID-19 might begin to experience dyspnea about a week after the initial onset of symptoms. COVID affects breathing habits more than the flu and can cause the level of oxygen in a person’s blood to go down to dangerous levels. A home pulse oximeter is a useful tool to determine whether your blood oxygen saturation levels are low and require medical intervention. Anything below 94 requires medical attention.
Unfortunately, neither symptom on its own, or even coupled with the other, is enough for a definitive coronavirus diagnosis. Ultimately the flu and COVID are respiratory illnesses, which can be spread by an infected person before they are showing symptoms. The only surefire way to know whether you have the flu or COVID is to get tested. In the meantime, because the symptoms of the flu and coronavirus overlap so significantly, it’s important to always first assume you have COVID—as that’s the more deadly and infectious of the two illness—and act accordingly. (No need to panic, but do take extra precautions to protect those around you.)
There are ways to protect yourself from both viruses. Getting a flu vaccine is more important this year than any other. We don’t yet know what a dual infection will do to any body—and giving your immune system a leg up over the flu is good sense. Also washing hands and wearing a mask will not only protect you from COVID, it can protect you from many other viruses while you’re out. And finally, staying home as much as possible, not taking unnecessary risks, is a guaranteed way to protect yourself and your community.
I suspect for the foreseeable future, every sniffle will leave me anxiously wondering whether my child has allergies, the flu, a cold, or COVID. That’s an inevitable part of living through a pandemic, let alone a “twindemic.” But the truth I keep reminding myself is that this will pass, and what feels overwhelming today about this virus will not be that way forever.