You’re achy and exhausted, and your head is pounding. In the past, you might have asked whether you had the cold or the flu.
This year, as flu season arrives in Canada, many people are wondering whether their symptoms are the flu or COVID-19.
In partnership with Shoppers Drug Mart, we take a look at the symptoms to watch for and what to do if you get sick.
What does the flu feel like?
Flu symptoms include fever and/or chills, a cough, and extreme fatigue. “You feel like you’ve been hit by a truck,” says Victor Wong, a pharmacist and associate owner of a Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto.
Other flu symptoms include sore throat and sinus-related conditions, such as a runny or stuffy nose, along with head or body aches. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach aches and diarrhea are also possible, though Wong notes these are more common in children than adults.
What’s the difference between the flu and COVID-19?
Many flu symptoms also happen to be indicators of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. “What is different with COVID-19 is sometimes people have reported a change in taste and loss of smell. That’s distinct and doesn’t happen with the flu,” Wong adds.
The rate of infection differs as well. “With flu, oftentimes the symptoms occur one to four days after infection. With COVID-19, they seem to develop about five days after infection,” Wong says, adding that sometimes COVID-19 symptoms can develop as long as 14 days after infection.
What should you do if you have symptoms?
There’s no foolproof way of knowing whether it’s the flu or COVID-19 if you go by symptoms alone. “The only way to confirm if you have COVID-19 is through a test — right now we have nasal swab tests,” Wong says.
If you do have symptoms similar to the ones associated with COVID-19, he adds, it’s important to quarantine and avoid contact with other individuals to reduce the chances of spreading it. “Call your health-care professional and contact the public health authority to arrange a way to get tested,” he says.
Regardless of whether it’s the flu or COVID-19, if you are showing symptoms, you shouldn’t return to class or work, or run errands to avoid infecting others. “Individuals with the flu can be contagious for up to seven days,” Wong says. “You can even be contagious one or two days prior to showing symptoms. But the flu is most contagious three to four days after showing signs and symptoms, and then up to seven days after symptoms have appeared.”
He suggests taking even more precautions with small children and infants. “Often people with less developed immune systems, like infants, can be contagious for 10 to 15 days because their systems are unable to fight off the flu virus,” Wong says. He also adds that if you have the flu, you should be fever-free for at least 24 hours before you resume your daily routine.
How to avoid spreading the flu
To help prevent the spread of the flu, minimize your chances of getting sick overall. Get your annual flu shot, even if you have had COVID-19.
“Every year, it’s very important to get the shot,” Wong says. “But this year particularly, people have a heightened responsibility to get the shot. With the collision of flu and COVID-19, it could be the perfect storm, and our hospitals could be overwhelmed by a second wave.”
Rely on personal hygiene practices to help avoid transmitting viruses. These include frequent handwashing for 20 seconds with warm, soapy water; covering your mouth if you’re coughing or sneezing; wearing a two-layer mask over your nose and mouth, not just over your mouth or chin; and using a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 per cent alcohol if you can’t get to a handwashing station.
Take time to rest and recover from the flu. “Drink lots of liquids. Water, a drink with electrolytes or juices help,” Wong says. “Studies have also shown that warm soups, such as chicken soup, can help improve symptoms faster than normal water.”
If you need help fighting that painful headache or managing your cough, he suggests trying an over-the-counter medication to help deal with your flu symptoms.
Help protect yourself and others from the flu. Review aches and pains with a flu symptom checker and stay home if you feel sick.
Watch for the flu shot at your local Shoppers Drug Mart and get vaccinated this year.