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What you need to know about COVID-19 during cold and flu season

Posted November 20, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST

As flu season begins and COVID-19 continues to spread, individuals should do what they can to remain healthy and keep their immune system strengthened against viruses. (Chinnapong/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine.

A tickle in your throat, a light cough, general achiness — these symptoms could all be indicative of the flu. But this winter, with COVID-19 causing similar symptoms to those of the flu, determining the cause of your symptoms may not be quite so simple.

While individuals showing any symptoms should likely get tested, there are a few subtle differences between the flu and COVID-19 to keep in mind.

"The big thing that makes you think of the flu is you feel fine, then all of a sudden you feel so fatigued — like you got hit by a truck and want to just go to bed. If you notice that your symptoms come on very quickly like that, then it's probably more indicative of the flu," said Dr. Katie Trotta, pharmacy manager at Campbell University Health Center and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pharmacy. "With COVID, a lot of times you're going to see that loss of taste or smell that you would definitely not see with influenza, so those are the main differentiating factors."

Still, even though each virus is marked by unique symptoms, Trotta recommends getting tested no matter what you may be experiencing — especially as the holiday season nears. While early testing was plagued with delays and shortages, most of those issues have been ironed out, making it quicker and easier than ever to take a COVID-19 test and receive results.

Aside from wearing masks, adjusting your diet, activity level, and vitamin intake — especially in the winter months — can give your immune system the boost it needs to stay healthy.

"Vitamin D is really important for helping your immune function in general, and we know that using vitamin D can help to reduce the contraction of COVID, as well as the severity of COVID if you do end up getting it. Even if you are not exposed to a virus, those vitamins are still a component of improving your immune system," said Trotta. "Another recommendation that I've told everyone is to make sure that you are maintaining as healthy of a lifestyle as possible, because if you're eating a healthier diet — a lot of fresh fruits and veggies and trying to stay active — that's going to improve your overall immune system, as well."

Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle is certainly a key piece of the puzzle, but it's far from the only action individuals can take. While there currently is no vaccine for COVID — although there's hope for one to be developed eventually — the flu vaccine is readily available and highly recommended by medical professionals.

"Getting a flu shot is one of the most important things that you can do to prevent the spread, and this also helps us as clinicians. When somebody comes in with a fever and a cough, if they've had a flu shot, then it's less likely that they have the flu," said Dr. Pennings, director of the Campbell University Health Center and Chair of Family Medicine. "Not only do masks prevent the spread of COVID, but they'll protect you from spreading or getting the flu or common cold — so we're also hoping that with everybody wearing masks, we'll see less of cold and flu because the means of transmission will be diminished."

Still, even those with the strictest safety standards and best intentions can become exposed to one or both of these viruses. In cases that don't require hospitalization, there are steps that can be taken at home to speed along recovery, including fluid intake, plenty of rest, and dietary changes.

"You want to focus on maximizing your healthy choices with eating, so increasing your fruits and veggies and minimizing simple sugars and processed fats, because meals that are high in simple sugars decrease the efficiency of your immune system," said Trotta. "And if you can, obviously not doing any sort of high-intensity activity when you're sick, but just walking around or any kind of movement can also help keep your immune system moving and help your body fight the virus."

While both the flu and COVID-19 are primarily spread through droplets, the transmission rates of the virus vary significantly, with the latter virus boasting much higher numbers. Not only that, but according to the World Health Organization, around 15% of COVID-19 cases are severe, far outnumbering severe cases caused by the flu.

Additionally, most individuals infected with the flu go on to have full recoveries after suffering from the flu, but long-term effects of COVID-19 are a little more ambiguous since the virus is still relatively new.

"The flu and COVID are very different as far as the seriousness of the complications that can occur and how easily it is spread — in particular, that you can spread COVID before you develop symptoms or without even developing symptoms. Asymptomatic carriers are probably the most concerning and challenging thing about this infection," said Pennings. "Not only that, but even if you're young there's still a threat for long-term damage. We're seeing heart damage and lung damage, and it's particularly concerning for athletes and in mild cases. It may not be severe enough to require admission to the hospital or ICU, but that doesn't mean it can't do potentially permanent damage to your body."

With the addition of COVID-19 looming this flu season, medical professionals like Trotta and Pennings emphasize the importance of taking steps toward a healthy lifestyle, whether through dietary changes, increased sanitation and mask wearing, or incorporating more activity into your lifestyle. This year, as with every other, an apple a day may very well help keep the doctor away.

This article was written for our sponsor, Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine.

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