Did you know you can get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time? Here we dive into what getting both illnesses would look like and how to protect yourself.
“Flu season is different this year because of COVID-19,” said Houston Health Department Medical Director Dr. David Persse on Wednesday.
Along with the flu, Persse expects the virus that causes COVID-19 to keep spreading this fall and winter.
Getting both illnesses at the same time increases the risk of death, according to a study.
“This will be the first flu season with COVID-19, and we have a lot to learn, but it’s accurate to say that co-infection will reduce a person’s likelihood of recovery,” he said.
Both the flu and COVID-19 impact the lungs, increasing the probability of serious conditions like pneumonia and respiratory failure. Both illnesses also carry the possibility of damage to other organs including the heart and brain, Persse explained.
There’s not a lot of data at this time about the two illnesses working together and the havoc it could cause on the body.
“COVID-19 and influenza simultaneous co-infection is theoretically possible. What the precise manifestations of such co-infection would be is difficult to predict currently,” explained Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, in an email on Wednesday.
“The usual risk factors that predispose to severe infection, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, underlying immunocompromising conditions, etc. could likely be expected to lead to more serious outcomes, but the details of this will need to be determined,” Kulkarni wrote.
Some Same Symptoms
The flu and COVID-19 share some symptoms including cough, weakness, fatigue and exhaustion. If you are also experiencing new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, shortness of breath, nausea or diarrhea, you might have COVID-19, Persse explained.
If you have symptoms of the flu or COVID-19, you to need self-quarantine, contact your doctor, and get tested, Persse said.
The flu strains hospital systems every year, Persee said.
But when people get a flu shot, they help to reduce the strain on hospitals.
“Since there is not currently a COVID-19 vaccine, getting a flu shot is the best way to help make sure there is a hospital bed available for every person who needs one,” he said.
COVID-19 and the flu spread in similar ways, said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins.
“Droplets or smaller virus particles from a sick person can transmit the virus to other people nearby. The smallest particles may linger in the air, and another person can inhale them and become infected,” she said.
Or people could touch a surface with viruses on it, and then by touching their face the germs could transfer, she explained.
It is possible to spread the flu and COVID-19 for at least a day before experiencing any symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, if you contract COVID-19, you may be contagious for a longer period of time than if you have the flu.
Measures to Take Now
“We don’t know what the impact on our bodies will be with both flu and COVID simultaneously, or even in close time ranges between illnesses because (thankfully) flu season in the Southern hemisphere has been pretty mild — likely due to the interventions of social distancing and mask wearing, which reduces spread of flu virus as well as COVID,” said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin.
Brown said that the flu will impact the immune system and make the immune system work overtime to fight it. So it may reduce the ability for the body to defend itself against COVID-19.
Also, Brown said, getting the flu shot would reduce uncertainty about which illness you have.
“Having flu infection will look in many ways like COVID, so this is going to increase testing needs before return to work/school or people/students will just need to be prepared to stay home for 14 days with illness this winter season (October to April),” Brown said.
It’s important for almost everyone over six months of age to be immunized against influenza every year, Kulkarni said, though some people have a medical contraindication.
“Co-infection of COVID-19 and influenza might theoretically lead to worse outcomes, so doing everything we can to prevent both infections, in the form of flu vaccination, continued social/physical distancing, wearing a mask in public, avoiding large crowds, and frequently washing our hands, remains the best public health steps we can currently take,” he said.
What about antibiotics? Neither the flu nor COVID-19 is treatable with antibiotics, which only work on bacterial infections such as some sinus infections.