If your child has ever had a fever, you know the wait for it to break can feel like forever. But, now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the wait may also bring more time to worry about what may be causing the fever in the first place. While much is still being learned about COVID-19, researchers and physicians can agree that the flu and COVID-19 share many similar characteristics, but there are a few key differences. Here’s what you need to know.
COVID-19 and influenza (flu) are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by one virus, the novel 2019 coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2, and the flu is caused by any of several different types and strains of influenza viruses. Both can bring a wide-range of symptoms – from mild to severe – including:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)
Symptoms uniquely associated with COVID-19 also include changes in, or loss of, taste or smell.
“Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, parents shouldn’t bear the responsibility of diagnosing their child alone,” said Eric Robinette, pediatric infectious disease physician at Akron Children’s. “When in doubt, call your pediatrician or schedule a telehealth visit if you’re noticing symptoms that seem different or are concerning you.”
Seek immediate medical attention if your child is experiencing emergency warning signs of COVID-19 such as, but not limited to:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
Additionally, both the flu and COVID-19 can result in complications including pneumonia, respiratory failure or worsen chronic medical conditions, among others. COVID-19 has also been found to cause blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain, as well as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a rare but severe complication seen more often in school-aged children.
“While MIS-C is rare, as a precaution children experiencing a prolonged, unexplained fever especially 3-4 weeks after having had COVID-19 should be evaluated by their doctor,” added Dr. Robinette.
A major difference of the illnesses is the duration in which symptoms appear. If a person has COVID-19, it can take longer to develop symptoms than the flu. Typically, a person develops symptoms 5 days after being infected, but symptoms can appear as early as 2 days after infection or as late as 14 days, and the time range can vary. With the flu, a person develops symptoms anywhere from 1 to 4 days after infection.
COVID-19 and flu viruses are thought to spread in similar ways – from person-to-person through droplets in the air from an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking. As a result, the same public health measures – good hand hygiene, covering coughs or sneezes in the elbow, wearing a face covering and safe social distancing – are important actions everyone can take to help slow the spread of these illnesses.
“Although COVID-19 is top-of-mind for everyone right now, it’s important families don’t lose sight of things they can do to protect their kids’ long-term, overall health,” said Dr. Robinette. “This includes things like getting regular physical exercise, adequate sleep and recommended vaccinations for other infections like tetanus and measles, as well as an annual flu shot that can help prevent or reduce the severity of certain forms of the flu.”
Have more questions about your child’s health? Find an Akron Children’s pediatrician in your neighborhood to schedule an in-person visit or contact Akron Children’s pediatric providers through virtual visits using voice and video on a compatible mobile phone, tablet or computer via Quick Care Online or MyChart telehealth.