Reality check: What is ‘flurona’ and can you tell if you have it?

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For anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms, the general advice from public health officials is to either stay home or get tested for COVID-19.

But what if you have the flu and COVID-19 — both at the same? Then, it’s definitely ‘flurona’.

The catchy term coined during the COVID-19 pandemic is used to describe a co-infection when a person catches the influenza virus and the coronavirus simultaneously.

It’s not a new phenomenon or uncommon to be infected with the two viruses. But with COVID-19 infections surging in Canada while the country is still in the midst of the annual flu season, cases of ‘flurona’ are only inevitable and bound to be reported, experts say.

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“As we’re seeing more flu this year because social distancing is not as strict in the past and we’re in the middle of the classic flu season, and because we’re in a huge surge of COVID-19, because of the Omicron variant, it’s not surprising we’re going to see people that are unfortunately infected with both of these illnesses at the same time,” Dr. Michael Curry, an emergency physician and clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, said.

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Because the flu and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, have several overlapping symptoms, it is difficult for a person to self-diagnose ‘flurona’ without getting a test, Curry said.

“We really discover the existence of flurona in the lab,” he said.

“A person who is sick probably won’t be able to tell the difference.”

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What are the symptoms of ‘flurona’?

Both influenza and COVID-19 are infectious respiratory diseases.

They are transmitted by droplets spread through direct or close contact with an infected person, and indirect contact with contaminated surfaces, also known as fomite transmission.

According to the World Health Organization, influenza and COVID-19 also share similar symptoms, including cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, headache and fatigue.

So the signs of ‘flurona’ would not be any different, Curry said.

“It’s basically a combined collection of symptoms from both of them,” he explained.

“The classic respiratory symptoms of a cough, sore throat, runny nose, fever are going to be present from both of those.”

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In more severe cases, a person with flurona may experience nausea, headaches, fever, diarrhea and aches and pains, Curry said.

However, it’s not entirely clear if having both viral infections at the same time would lead to more severe symptoms or put you at a greater health risk, Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and a medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre (MUC), said.

“We don’t know if the risk is different,” he said.

But if you have an underlying health condition, such as a weakened immune system, lung or heart problems, then ‘flurona’ is more likely to cause severe disease, Vinh added.

Not a new variant

Unlike Delta or Omicron, ‘flurona’ is not a new variant of COVID-19.

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A COVID-19 variant is basically a different version of the coronavirus as the genetic material of the virus undergoes mutations.

The influenza virus, which has a different biology, does not mix or interact with the coronavirus, Vinh said.

“These are just two different viruses unrelated to each other occurring at the same time,” he said, adding that “flurona” was not a “hybrid or new monster variant”.

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Curry said while it is theoretically possible for viruses to mingle, causing some trading of genetic elements, it is “very unlikely” to occur.

He explained that viruses are a collection of nucleic acids that have found a way to reproduce in cells from other organisms.

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“Most of the time when you mix up that genetic combination, you don’t get a super virus, you get something that you can’t replicate, can’t spread.”

Vaccinate and treat

The good news is that there are safe and effective vaccines available for both the flu and COVID-19.

However, the vaccine for one does not protect you from the other, which is why experts urge getting vaccinated against both viruses.

“Each one of them [COVID-19 and flu] poses a challenge, but particularly if you’re immunized, they should be relatively minor illnesses that you recover from within a week or two,” Curry said.
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In the instance you do get ‘flurona’, there are different treatments and drugs for each virus. Like the vaccines, the same treatment cannot be used to tackle both.

“The two categories of viruses have their own treatments, … so it’s not like taking one pill that would kill both viruses, at least not yet in modern medicine,” Vinh said.

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When treating ‘flurona’, there is the “potential risk” of interactions of medications, he cautioned.

Flu symptoms can be treated with rest, fluids and medication to reduce fever or aches, according to Health Canada.

As for COVID-19, Health Canada has approved remdisivir, a repurposed antiviral drug, along with three monoclonal antibodies — all of which are administered intravenously.

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