Is this the flu, or am I positive for COVID-19? Hopefully you don't have to play that game over the fall and winter months.

But even if you were to seek medical attention for a solid answer, you may not get one.

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"It's very difficult even for experts to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19," said Dr. Eric Wasserman, chairman of emergency medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. "Sometimes the only way to differentiate between the two is to get tested."

Both respiratory illnesses are caused by viruses and run a similar course. Common symptoms shared by influenza and the novel coronavirus include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches and headaches

"There is one symptom that is characteristic of COVID-19 that is uncharacteristic of the flu, and that is a loss of taste or smell," Wasserman noted. "We've seen that only with COVID-19 and not with the flu."

Whether you're sick with either, one or more days could pass between becoming infected and experiencing illness symptoms. With either illness, you can pass the virus along to others before feeling sick yourself.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both illnesses are spread mainly by droplets made when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. COVID-19, however, has been observed to have more "superspreading" events than flu.

Wasserman advises folks to seek medical help when they feel sick enough to warrant it, but even patients with mild cases of COVID-19 could be sent home and told to practice the same get-better tips as someone with a bad cold.

According to Wasserman, this year more than ever it's important for anyone 6 months of age and older, with rare exceptions, to be vaccinated against influenza.

"The flu vaccine won't protect you from COVID-19, but you probably don't want to be infected with both, which is a possibility," Wasserman said.

A higher vaccination rate could also help lighten the load on healthcare professionals, although the vaccine is never 100% effective, Wasserman said.

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