Even though the flu isn’t new and is even fairly common around this time of the year, something strange is happening this season. For the past few years, people have been quarantining, social distancing and helping slow the spread of germs and viruses around the world. However, as national mandates slow down and people start to return to their normal lives, people are starting to come down with the flu and the coronavirus, and in some cases – maybe both at the same time?
As more cases have come forward recently, it does seem that you can have the flu and the coronavirus simultaneously. In fact, there have been some, but very rare, cases where an individual has tested positive for COVID-19 and then tested positive for influenza within days of each other. Although they are similar and can have similar symptoms, they are different and humans are able to catch a strain of each, sometimes even days or maybe hours apart.
By breaking down the science behind both viruses and how they work, we can tell better whether or not it is possible to catch both. And, more importantly, by learning more about it, we can do a better job trying not to get sick.
The differences and similarities between the two viruses
While both influenza (flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses and might seem like their symptoms are quite similar, they are caused by different viruses. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 and other variants are caused by an infection from the coronavirus while the flu is caused by an infection with influenza viruses.
The CDC writes that COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than the flu and can also cause more serious illnesses in some people. It also seems to be that COVID-19 can “take longer before people show symptoms and people can be contagious for longer.”
The similarities between the two, however, are fairly large. Per the CDC, both COVID-19 and the flu can share these symptoms:
- Fever or feeling feverish/having chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Change in or loss of taste or smell, although this is more common with COVID-19
And, both viruses can result in these complications:
- Respiratory failure
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (fluid in the lungs)
- Sepsis (a life-threatening illness cause by the body’s extreme response to an infection)
- Cardiac injury (i.e. heart attacks and stroke)
- Multiple-organ failure (respiratory failure, kidney failure, shock)
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions (involving the lungs, heart or nervous system or diabetes)
- Inflammation of the heart, brain or muscles tissues
- Secondary infections (bacterial or fungal infections that can occur in people who have already been infected with flu or COVID-19)
So, how can you tell whether you have the flu or COVID-19, or possibly both? With such large similarities between the two, testing is the only option. And more recently, the federal government has made it easy for people to go online and order free, take-home rapid tests for COVID-19 and its variants. So this way, you can be sure to know what is causing the illness you might have.
Now that we understand a little more about both viruses, we still need to know the bigger question, which is: Can you catch both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time to create the “flurona?”
Is it possible to catch both viruses?
Although co-infections – or being infected by multiple viruses – are rare, they can certainly still happen. And, as more of the population returns to a pre-pandemic life with children returning to school, employees returning to the office after a year or more of working from home, viruses like the flu are starting to pop up more than they have in the recent year.
Another reason, per the CDC, we are seeing more flu outbreaks this year is due to far less people getting vaccinated for it. The dominant strain of the flu this season is H3N2. However, nearly 20 million fewer doses have been given by the start of the year, compared to last year. So, this makes the flu more common to catch this year and might be the cause of the co-infections.
According to Mayo Clinic professionals who have studied recent outbreaks, co-infections with COVID-19 and the flu are rare, but certainly possible. The co-infections are rare because once you are infected with COVID-19, it becomes the predominant virus in the body and tends to “take over” so-to-speak. However, there have been a few cases where someone has tested positive for COVID-19 and then tested positive for the flu days later.
Whether you test positive for the flu or COVID-19, the best recommended practice is to isolate yourself, stay home from work and try to prevent further spread of the virus. Mayo Clinic professionals state that it is possible to stay safe from COVID-19 and the flu this season, as long as you are taking proper precautions, especially for people that are at a higher risk of infection like elderly adults, people with underlying medical conditions and women that are pregnant.
What to do if you are sick
So now that we know the “flurona” is possible, but certainly not common, you can rest easy knowing that a co-infection of this duo isn’t likely. However, in the event that you do test positive for either virus, there are a few precautions you can take to ensure you and the ones around you stay safe and healthy.
Here are a few steps to follow if you become sick or test positive for the virus:
- Stay home: People that are testing positive or getting sick with COVID-19, especially with the Omicron variant, typically have mild symptoms and can recover at home without medical care; however, to limit the spread, try not to leave your home except if you need medical care.
- Take care of yourself: Stick to the basics – get rest and stay hydrated. You can also take over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, such as acetaminophen if you need to.
- Stay in touch with your doctor: Before heading to the doctors, try calling them to see if you should stay home instead or if your symptoms are worse and possibly need to go to the emergency room.
- Avoid public transportation: If at all possible while being sick or testing positive, try to avoid ride-sharing or using taxis to get to where you need to go.
Although symptoms seem to be far less severe with this new variant, that doesn’t mean that emergencies won’t happen. It’s always a good idea to monitor yourself, take your temperature and look for emergency warning signs. These emergency warning signs for COVID-19 include: trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, and pale or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds. If you or a loved one displays any of these signs or symptoms, it’s best to call 911 or call your local emergency facility.
With cooler temperatures beginning to take over and people spending more time inside than before, the “flurona” season will most likely stay worse until the warmer weather comes this spring. So, until then, try to limit your exposure to others and follow healthcare guidelines that will help you through the winter.