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How COVID-19 and flu are similar yet different

Infectious disease expert says a test is necessary to tell the difference

A nurse practitioner prepares a flu vaccination for a patient at the CVS Pharmacy and MinuteClinic on Sept. 3, 2020 in Key Biscayne, Florida.
A nurse practitioner prepares a flu vaccination for a patient at the CVS Pharmacy and MinuteClinic on Sept. 3, 2020 in Key Biscayne, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

COVID-19 and influenza are difficult to tell apart.

They’re both deadly respiratory diseases with similar symptoms — but there are a few important differences, according to Susan Rehm, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic.

"One needs to have a test to be able to tell the difference and it’s really important to have the test because there are treatments for influenza, prescription antiviral medications can be given for influenza, she said.

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Flu-specific antiviral medications can lessen the severity and shorten the duration of influenza.

Dr. Rehm recommends calling your healthcare provider within the first day or two of illness for maximum impact with flu antivirals.

Antivirals can also reduce the risk of flu complications — like pneumonia.

She notes that several antivirals are being studied for COVID-19, but they’re not available for use at home.

Another difference between flu and coronavirus is that we have a vaccine to help prevent influenza.

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COVID-19 vaccines are currently being studied, but aren’t ready.

Dr. Rehm said it’s important to prevent what we can, especially during a pandemic, and encourages everyone to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot.

“We know that hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized because of influenza and it is preventable with vaccine,” she said. “Get the vaccine, it doesn’t take long and that’s one of the best things you can do to protect yourself.”

If you believe you have a serious respiratory infection, like COVID-19 or flu, Dr. Rehm recommends calling your doctor for guidance on testing and treatment options.