Fever, chills, body aches, sore throats and a persistent cough. All the symptoms seem the same for the flu, a cold, seasonal allergies, and COVID-19. With so many people testing positive for COVID-19 across South Africa, how can you tell whether you should be self-isolating or if you have a common cold, particularly since the new COVID variants are far more contagious, and this year’s flu strain is already proving itself to be particularly virulent?
Shared symptoms are complicating matters
Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, however, it’s important to note that these virus strains are not the same. Influenza viruses cause the flu and COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2).
Unfortunately, initial symptoms can be very similar, including fever or feeling feverish, chills, a cough, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, extreme tiredness, a sore throat, a stuffy or runny nose and body aches.
One symptom specific to COVID-19 is a loss of taste or smell, although not everyone who tests positive displays this symptom.
Because COVID-19 seems to spread more quickly than flu and can result in a more severe illness in some people, it’s essential to take a COVID test to tell what the illness is and confirm a diagnosis. It is also possible to be infected with both flu and COVID-19 simultaneously and have symptoms of both.
Transmitting and preventing COVID-19 and the flu
While the symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, how they are spread is similar as well, which means that if you follow the guidelines to prevent COVID-19, you’re also preventing the spread of flu.
- Cover your mouth when you cough with a tissue or elbow
- Wear a cloth mask
- Wash your hands frequently and sanitise
- Stay at home and social distance
To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?
With the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out underway, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) still recommends that South Africans receive the influenza vaccine. Simply put, the influenza vaccine will protect you against influenza, and the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine will protect you against COVID-19. A minimum 14-day waiting period between the two vaccines is recommended, but together they can curb the spread of both viruses during this heightened period.
Immune boosting support
The medical world is yet to develop a silver bullet that boosts the immune system, but there are a few tried and tested daily habits that will keep you healthier and – hopefully – able to fend off any influenza bugs that come your way.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. These foods will not only give your immune system the energy it needs, but a healthy dose of micronutrients, including Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E. Experts believe that your body absorbs vitamins more efficiently from dietary sources than supplements, so the best way to support your immune system is to eat a well-balanced diet.
- Exercise regularly. We’re not talking about training to compete in Iron Man – simple daily exercise boosts your overall circulation, making it easier for immune cells and other infection-fighting molecules to travel more efficiently throughout your body.
- Get plenty of sleep. Did you know that important infection-fighting molecules are created while you sleep? Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more prone to getting sick after exposure to viruses, so make sure you’re getting your full eight hours of (quality) sleep.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Water supports your immune system, and fluid in your circulatory system called lymph, which carries important infection-fighting immune cells around your body, is primarily made up of water. Being dehydrated slows down the movement of lymph, sometimes leading to an impaired immune system.
- Minimise stress. This is far easier said than done, we know, particularly in the middle of the third wave of a global pandemic and a particularly bad flu season, but stress responses suppress the immune system. Figure out what helps you to manage your stress levels, whether it’s deep breathing, mediation, prayer or exercise, and make sure that you put some time aside each day for self-care.