Story at a glance

  • COVID-19 has a few distinct symptoms that may help differentiate from the flu.
  • These include loss of smell and shortness of breath.
  • Health experts are preparing for the flu season.

The most common COVID-19 symptoms are similar to the common cold, such as coughing and fatigue, but some are unique to the virus. These include difficulty breathing and a sudden loss of smell.

However, it should be noted that some people are asymptomatic, meaning that they do not show symptoms when infected. In addition, it may take a long time for symptoms to arise and they may disappear and reappear in some people.

That said, there are some general differences from the flu that might be helpful to be aware of. Note that this is not meant to diagnose COVID-19 but to provide some guidance.

Dulled senses

One of the unique symptoms of COVID-19 is a sudden loss of smell and taste. In a study of 417 people with mild to moderate cases, 85.6 and 88 percent of the group experienced olfactory (sense of smell) and gustatory (sense of taste dysfunction, respectively. This can happen with common colds and flu, too, but COVID-19 patients have experienced it sometimes without also having a stuffy nose.

Difficulty breathing

Many COVID-19 patients have shortness of breath or a hard time breathing. It normally may arise somewhere between the fourth and eighth day of symptoms, according to a study. In patients experiencing anxiety because of coronavirus infection, they can experience anxiety related shortness of breath. This is different from having a panic or anxiety attack. Some experts have outlined breathing exercises for recovery from the coronavirus.


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Temperature checks, not so much

Looking for a fever is usually a good way to determine if someone has the flu. With COVID, not everyone will develop a fever when they are infectious. Some people may eventually have a fever but some may not. This is why temperature checks are not as reliable a safety check for COVID as it is for the flu. You would be missing a lot of infected individuals if it were the only tool used to identify potential cases.

The long haul

A subset of COVID-19 patients end up having long-term symptoms that persist or recur over weeks or months. Symptoms they’ve reported include fatigue, brain fog, decreased lung capacity and damage to lung tissue. This group, self-described as long-haulers, experiences similar illness to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Some have defined long-hauler status as at least one month of symptoms, even if there was a break somewhere. While muscle aches and fatigue may occur with the flu, it typically does not last for as long as it has with COVID.


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The upcoming flu season

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has testing kits to test for both COVID and the flu at the same time. Other groups like LabCorp are also working on combined testing in preparation for flu season.

There’s some data to suggest that this year’s flu season may not be as bad as past seasons. Surveys in countries in the Southern Hemisphere like Australia suggest that fewer people have been sick with the flu during the current winter that’s coming to an end. Public health officials in the U.S. are preparing for both viruses to be circulating this winter.

What to do if you think you are sick

Talk to a professional. If you have access to telehealth services, you can consult with a doctor if you are sick. They will have the latest information about the flu and COVID-19. If necessary, they can advise you on whether to get tested for the coronavirus. Find out if your local health department is offering free COVID-19 testing and if you can get tested safely. Flu vaccines for this season are now available in the U.S. Check out your pharmacy or local clinic if they are offering them.

As early as possible, start keeping track of your symptoms in a journal. It may help with understanding what’s happening with your illness and make you more aware of any symptoms that you may have. If you suspect that you do have the coronavirus, follow best practices for hygiene, face masks and distancing from others to reduce potential exposure and further infections.

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Sep 16, 2020