Is it COVID-19 or the flu? What to know as flu season approaches

By Erin Dougherty for the City of Overland Park

Every year, cold weather signals the flu season’s arrival. This year, we remain in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – and with flu season fast-approaching – it’s important to understand the similarities and differences between the two viruses.

Although COVID-19 and the flu are caused by different viruses, they are both contagious respiratory illnesses that share many overlapping symptoms.

While testing is the only way to diagnose whether you have COVID-19 or the flu, this article provides an overview to help you compare the two viruses and stay safe and healthy through the season.


Both COVID-19 and the flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms to extremely severe symptoms. COVID-19 and the flu share the following common symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose and congestion
  • Headache

However, there are some key differences between the two. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person with the flu will likely experience a sudden onset of symptoms. The most common flu symptoms include fever, cough, fatigue, weakness and extreme exhaustion. COVID-19 seems to cause more serious illness in some people. Other signs and symptoms of COVID-19, different from the flu, may include change in or loss of taste or smell.

Curious to learn more about the similarities and differences in symptoms? View the COVID-19 vs. Cold vs. Flu vs. Allergies Chart by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. There is also a specific chart for children’s symptoms.

Spread + Exposure

Both COVID-19 and the flu are spread from person-to-person, mainly by droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking.

It’s also possible to become infected through human contact or by touching a surface and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. Keep in mind, CDC research shows COVID-19 spreads more easily than the flu.

Both viruses can spread before an infected person shows any signs or symptoms, and even if they never experience any symptoms. If exposed to either virus, symptoms will not appear immediately. A person infected with COVID-19 could take longer to develop symptoms, anywhere from two to 14 days. Whereas, a person infected with the flu typically develops symptoms anywhere from one to four days after infection.

When to See a Doctor

If you have a fever, cough or other signs of COVID-19, get tested and stay home except when seeking medical care. Most people infected with COVID-19 and the flu have mild illness and are able to recover at home. Monitor your symptoms carefully from home, but see a doctor if you are experiencing trouble breathing, chest pain or pressure, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake or bluish lips or face.

If you think you may have been exposed to COVID-19 or you are experiencing severe symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. If you are sick, the CDC recommends taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within your social circle.

Risk + Prevention

Both COVID-19 and the flu pose high risks to older adults, people with underlying medical conditions and people who are pregnant. Many recommended actions to prevent COVID-19’s spread also help prevent the spread of the flu. Avoiding exposure to the virus is the best way to prevent COVID-19. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment suggests following these steps to minimize your risk:

  • Stay home as much as possible
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol after touching frequently touched surfaces
  • Wear a mask or a face covering in public (this includes covering your mouth and nose)
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with an elbow or tissue
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily
  • Practice social distancing when in public (at least six feet apart)

The best way to protect yourself from getting the flu is to get your seasonal flu shot. The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age or older should get a flu vaccine every season, with rare exceptions. Talk to your local health care provider or pharmacy if you have any questions regarding which flu shots are best for you and your family.

A note from the editor:

Overland Park is working with community writers to bring you important news, information and stories regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the City’s response to coronavirus.