You’ve got a cough, a fever and body aches. You feel so exhausted that everything is an effort.
Is it COVID-19? Or the flu? Or a cold?
As we head into flu season, the answer is not so clear.
In 2020 and early 2021, the “twindemic” that doctors had feared – with flu and COVID-19 combined overwhelming hospitals – never happened.
Many public spaces, including schools were closed. Measures such as social distancing and masking minimized exposure to COVID-19 and flu as well.
“Last year’s flu season was essentially nonexistent,” says Angela Nicholas, MD, a family physician and Chief Medical Officer at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery. “Everyone was still masking, and we were just starting to get our seniors and those with medical conditions vaccinated against COVID.”
But this year, with most places open to the public and highly effective COVID-19 vaccines available, even for children ages 5 and up, it’s important to get vaccinated against both flu and the virus that causes COVID-19.
If you do feel sick, “telling the difference between a cold, the flu and COVID-19 is challenging because many of the symptoms overlap,” says Eric Sachinwalla, MD, medical director for infection prevention and control at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.
“The take home message is really that patients should make sure they are staying home and staying away from anyone else if they feel sick. And they should call their doctor to find out what the next steps should be.”
Should I get the flu and COVID-19 vaccines?
Yes, flu shots are even more important than usual this year, says Christopher Scaven, DO, a family medicine doctor and Medical Director of Einstein Community Health Associates, the organization of Einstein primary care doctors in Philadelphia.
“We don’t want to have a patient come down with a cold or flu, which could decrease their immune system and then put them at risk for getting COVID.”
Flu vaccination is strongly encouraged for everyone ages 6 months and older. Vaccinations for the flu are available at Einstein medical offices.
Dr. Nicholas notes that the flu vaccine helps to protect you as well as those who are most vulnerable to severe illness. This includes older adults, children and people who have certain chronic medical conditions or compromised immune systems.
Vaccination is also the best protection against COVID-19, which is most dangerous among older adults but can lead to serious illness for anyone.
Adults and children ages 12 and up can get their COVID-19 shots at the Einstein Community Vaccination site, open Monday through Friday at 5583 Park Ave. Call the vaccine hotline at 215-456-8088 to make an appointment.
If you have already had the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, you may also be able to get a booster for continued protection.
Parents seeking a COVID-19 vaccination for children under 12 with the Pfizer vaccine, approved this month, should contact their pediatrician or family doctor for advice, Dr. Nicholas says. You can get both flu and COVID-19 shots – even on the same day – in many community settings such as pharmacy clinics.
What are the most common symptoms of colds, flu and COVID-19?
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Aches and pains
- Loss of taste or smell
- Shortness of breath
- Sometimes sneezing, runny nose and sore throat
“Flu typically is sudden onset, feeling like you got hit by a truck,” Dr. Scaven says. “Usually it presents with a high fever and body aches; everything hurts from head to toe. With COVID, it can be a myriad of symptoms, and they may not be as dramatic and noticeable.”
All of these illnesses, particularly COVID-19, can have other symptoms. See the chart at the top of this page for a more comprehensive list.
What should I do if I have symptoms like these?
Call your healthcare provider. Depending on your symptoms, you may be scheduled for a telehealth appointment or an in-person visit.
Will I be tested for flu and COVID-19?
It depends on your symptoms, how long you’ve had them, and whether they have been getting worse.
If you have symptoms such as those above, Dr. Nicholas says, “call your primary care provider, who will decide if a COVID, or flu test needs to be done.”
Dr. Scaven agrees, noting that Einstein Community Health Associates practices “have the ability to perform rapid testing for flu, RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], strep, and COVID in the office.”
What happens if I have to go to the hospital?
“We typically see a bit of a surge associated with flu in winter,” Dr. Nicholas says, “but this is what we do. We know how to take care of very critically ill patients.
“The good news with COVID is that we have treatments that may shorten the course of COVID, and we know what we need to do right away.”
Learn about the steps Einstein has taken to protect patient safety during the COVID-19 outbreak.