The Flu: Symptoms, Prevention and COVID-19 Difference

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/07/2020

When flu season is upon us, it can be tempting to hide out at home until it passes. Because if you’ve ever been sick with the influenza virus, you’ll never want it again. 

Contracting seasonal influenza can put you in a world of hurt for days to weeks, sometimes even when you’ve gotten a flu shot. For some high risk individuals, the flu can turn serious quickly. 

Fighting the flu begins with prevention and vaccination, but when it’s too late and you find yourself seeking relief from the symptoms, there are a few solutions available that may ease your suffering. 

What Is Influenza? 

Generally, when we talk about influenza, we’re talking about the “seasonal flu,” a relatively common illness that affects millions of Americans each year. The flu, as it’s called, is caused by a virus, several viruses, actually. Influenzas type A and B are responsible for the seasonal illnesses we see each year.

When a new or novel influenza virus strikes, it often spreads quickly, resulting in pandemics such as the historic one that hit the United States in the early 20th century. 

Frequently referred to as the “Spanish flu,” this influenza pandemic was the first to involve the H1N1 virus, and ultimately killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.

Roughly eight percent of the U.S. population becomes ill with the seasonal flu each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So, while you may feel isolated and horribly alone when you’re sick, you’re far from it.

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Say goodbye to messy vitamin C packets

How Do You Catch and Prevent The Flu? 

The flu is a contagious illness that spreads from infected person to person. You don’t even have to hug or kiss them — according to the CDC, infected people can spread the virus to others up to six feet away or more. The virus is likely spread via droplets expelled when people cough, talk, sneeze, or laugh, for example. It may also be spread on surfaces, though that is less likely.

Washing your hands and steering clear of sick people is one step you can take to prevent the flu; another is getting an annual flu vaccine. 

While vaccines are a point of contention for some, the CDC estimates current flu vaccines can reduce your risk of contracting the flu by 40 percent to 60 percent. It’s effectiveness does vary from season to season, as the types of flu circulating must be well-matched to the vaccine for ultimate effectiveness. 

However, the vaccine does provide some protection even when it is not a perfect match to circulating viruses, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition to preventing the illness, a flu vaccine can prevent serious complications and hospitalizations.

Influenza Symptoms 

If you’re infected with the flu virus, you’ll generally begin showing symptoms in about two days. These symptoms come on quickly, can feel sudden and may include: 

  • Fever

  • Body aches

  • Chills

  • Fatigue

  • Cough

  • Runny nose and sneezing

  • Sore throat

  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

Is It COVID-19? 

Like the flu, COVID-19, the cause of the current coronavirus pandemic, is also caused by a virus. However, the viruses are different. 

And worse, the flu and COVID-19 do have some similar symptoms. Because of this, it may be hard to tell the difference. One potential indicator of COVID-19 is the loss of taste or smell sensations, but not having this symptom does not mean that you don’t have COVID-19.

If you’re at all unsure of whether you’re infected with the flu or COVID-19, set up an appointment with your healthcare provider and look into getting tested immediately. 

Both can cause severe, life-threatening outcomes, especially in older people and people with underlying health conditions.


Like with the common cold, there is no cure for seasonal flu. However, if caught early, antiviral drugs may shorten the duration or severity of your symptoms. They can shorten the time you’re sick by one or two days, and while that doesn’t seem like a lot, the flu can be brutal. Every day without symptoms is a godsend. 

Antivirals can also prevent complications like pneumonia, so people at a higher risk of complications — like those with chronic diseases — are strongly encouraged to seek medical treatment if they believe they have the flu.

The flu can cause life-threatening complications, so if you experience any of the following, seek medical attention right away: difficulty breathing, chest or abdominal pain, dizziness, confusion, seizures, not urinating, severe pain, weakness or unsteadiness, a fever that returns or worsening of chronic medical conditions.

In most cases, like the common cold, staying home, hydrating, and resting is the best course of action when you’re sick with the flu, unless you’re severely unwell. Stay away from other people to keep from getting them sick, and thank your lucky stars it’ll be over soon. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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