RIYADH: As the flu season begins with the change in weather and mercury levels dropping, many people are worrying about the twin threat of influenza and the coronavirus.
While the onset of winter make thousands of people ill with flu every year, this time round the COVID-19 pandemic is adding to health concerns.
Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Shaikh Abdullah, a member of the UK-based Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), Riyadh, said: “With flu season rapidly approaching and winter colds on the way, it is going to be easy for people to confuse one of the more common ailments with the new coronavirus disease.”
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illness this fall and winter caused by different viruses — such as flu caused by influenza viruses and common colds caused by rhinoviruses — is more important than ever.”
Anyone who is not sure whether what they have is a cold, flu or the coronavirus should self-isolate and seek medical advice, Dr. Abdullah said.
Because some of the symptoms of flu, common colds and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone and the only way to tell, for certain, is to take the test, he said.
However, there are some ways that could help people to decide which of the viruses they have picked up.
“Having a runny nose is a big sign that what you have is a cold, and while COVID-19 has more specific symptoms of dry cough, fever and loss of smell or taste, the flu usually affects the whole body,” said Dr. Abdullah, who also works with the National Guard Health Affairs.
With these predominating symptoms, it can help to differentiate between respiratory illnesses.
“During the common cold, less of the body is affected with symptoms focused on the mouth and nose, but with the flu you expect the body as a whole to be affected. With COVID-19, the persistent fever, dry cough — and features like taste and smell loss — can suggest this may be the cause,” Dr. Abdullah said.
Symptoms that point more toward COVID-19 are a severe form of shortness of breath, and a change in taste or smell.
Dr. Shaikh Abdullah
Both seasonal flu and COVID-19 can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms, he said.
“Symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include fever, cough, fatigue, sore throat, body ache, headache and vomiting and diarrhea, especially in children,” he said.
“Symptoms that point more toward COVID-19 are a severe form of shortness of breath, and a change in taste or smell. But it’s not foolproof and that’s why the testing is done to confirm coronavirus cases.”
Both diseases can spread from person to person, both are spread mainly by droplets from the infected person when coughing, sneezing and talking, he said.
Another important mode of transmission in all these viruses was through physical contact with people or by touching infected surfaces and then touching the mouth, nose and eyes.
While flu and COVID-19 are thought to spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious and has more super-spreading events than seasonal flu, he said.
Both COVID-19 and flu can affect certain high-risk groups such as the elderly, people with chronic diseases and those who are immunocompromised — with the difference of more risk of complication in healthy children in the case of flu compared to COVID-19, he said.
Along with similarities in the sign and symptoms of these viral disease, there are some similarities in their treatment including supportive medical care to help relieve symptoms and hospitalization of high-risk groups.
Dr. Abdullah said that the main differences in management included Food and Drug Administration-approved influenza antiviral drugs to treat flu for certain cases, whereas all antiviral drugs for COVID-19 management were still operating on a trial basis.
Another major difference is the availability of an effective influenza vaccine, while the world is still looking for an effective coronavirus vaccine, he said.
“As there is a very thin line in differentiating COVID-19 from common colds and flu, it is advised to adopt preventive measure like washing your hands regularly, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough and sneeze, wearing masks when going out, avoiding people who are unwell and taking flu vaccine as the season is approaching,” Dr. Abdullah said.