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Flu, COVID-19, or Strep? How to Spot the Difference

family sick with the flu

Have you been feeling ill? Is a sore throat or nagging cough keeping you sidelined? With the influx of coronavirus cases, you’re probably worried that you might have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. You may also be wondering whether you have influenza (the flu) or strep throat, since they are also highly contagious and can produce some of the same symptoms as COVID-19, including fever, headache, body aches, sore throat, and vomiting. While only a trained professional can provide you with an accurate diagnosis, here are some tips on how to spot the difference between these three illnesses.

Influenza (the Flu)

The flu is a respiratory virus that can be caused by various types and strains of the influenza virus. It can cause symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Chills and shaking
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Coughing

In some cases, individuals with the flu may also experience congestion, sore throat, vomiting, and diarrhea.  

While COVID-19 and strep affect people year-round, the flu has a season of peak activity. Flu season in the United States occurs in the fall and winter, with the most cases being reported between December and February. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 20% of the American population is impacted by the flu every year. The single best way to prevent the flu and slow its spread throughout your community is to get a yearly flu vaccine. 

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Like the flu, coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory virus. However, while the flu is caused by the influenza virus, COVID-19 is caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus (also known as “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” or “SARS-CoV-2”). COVID-19 can cause all of the flu symptoms mentioned above. However, it’s also common for coronavirus to cause difficulty breathing and shortness of breath—while the flu can also produce these symptoms, it’s rare for that to happen. Coronavirus has also been shown to cause a new loss of smell and/or taste.  

Specifically, here are the latest COVID-19 symptoms from the CDC:  

Another important distinction is that COVID-19 symptoms usually appear more gradually than flu symptoms and can be very mild. In fact, some people with COVID-19 don’t have any noticeable symptoms whereas flu symptoms are typically severe and disruptive. It’s also important to note that, although rare, it’s possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time since they are caused by different viruses that are both highly contagious. 

Other Coronavirus Considerations 

COVID-19 is a new disease that the medical community is learning more about every day. As the crisis continues, there is growing interest regarding the similarities between COVID-19 and tonsillitis symptoms. While it’s true that tonsillitis and coronavirus can both cause sore throat, headache, digestive issues, and fever, there are several factors that differentiate these two conditions. Additionally, COVID-19 cannot cause tonsillitis. 

For example, COVID-19 is more likely to cause: 

  • A dry cough
  • Chest pain 
  • Chills and aches 
  • Nasal congestion 
  • Loss of smell and taste 
  • Fatigue 
  • Pink eye (conjunctivitis)  

While tonsillitis is more closely associated with: 

  • Difficulty swallowing 
  • Tonsils that are swollen, red, or have a white or yellow coating 
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck  
  • A scratchy voice 

If you’re unsure about what condition is causing your symptoms, consult with a medical provider and maintain a safe distance from others until you have an answer. In the meantime, gargle with salt water, drink warm tea with honey, and suck on throat lozenges to help ease symptoms. If tonsillitis is to blame for your symptoms, you may be prescribed a regimen of self care measures or antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection. Less commonly, surgery may be recommended (tonsillectomy) to remove swollen tonsils. 

Strep Throat

Unlike the flu and coronavirus (COVID-19), which are both respiratory viruses, strep throat is a bacterial infection. It’s caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria. Like the flu and COVID-19, strep throat can cause a sore throat, a fever, a headache, body aches, and vomiting. Additional symptoms include:

  • Pain when swallowing
  • Small red spots on the roof of the mouth
  • Swollen red tonsils (with white patches or streaks of pus in some instances)
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes at the front of the neck
  • A rash

Similar to flu symptoms, the throat soreness associated with strep throat tends to appear fairly suddenly. Notably, unlike the flu and COVID-19, strep throat usually doesn’t produce a cough or congestion. Treatment for strep throat usually involves antibiotics to clear the infection and medicines to help soothe painful symptoms. 

The Bottom Line   

We all have plenty of questions these days. For example, is a sore throat a symptom of COVID-19? How long should I quarantine? And of course, when is this all going to end? 

Here’s what’s critical to remember: only a medical professional with proper diagnostic capabilities can definitively rule out COVID-19. Articles like this one only serve to provide some clarity as you wait for professional care. If you have any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, it’s important to promptly speak with a medical professional over the phone or via telehealth. Or, you can turn to DispatchHealth for the COVID-19 testing and other care services you need.

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Proudly Offering In-Home Care for All Three Illnesses

No matter which of these conditions you have—or if you have another illness altogether—you can get the safe and affordable care you need without having to step foot outside your house. Simply turn to DispatchHealth. We offer at-home testing and treatment for the flu, coronavirus (COVID-19), strep throat, and a wide array of other illnesses and injuries. We typically spend about 45 minutes with each of our patients, and we’ll be sure to answer any questions that are on your mind before we leave.

Given the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, people are understandably concerned about the spread of infection. You don’t need to worry about inviting our team into your home. Our providers always wear protective eyewear, surgical masks, and gloves, and when a patient has COVID-19 and/or respiratory symptoms, our team also wears N95 respirator masks, gowns, and shoe covers. What’s more, we follow strict guidelines when entering and exiting each patient’s home and disposing of potentially hazardous materials. And we even wipe down our kits and their contents and disinfect our cars at every shift change and before and after every patient visit. 

Furthermore, it’s easy to request care from DispatchHealth—you can do so over the phone, using our mobile app, or through our website. If you’re concerned about the cost of in-home care, you don’t need to be—our visits generally cost about the same amount you would pay at an urgent care clinic, and just a fraction of what it would cost to visit the emergency room. Plus, we accept most major health insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid. Contact us today to schedule a visit.

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

    1. https://www.cooperhealth.org/services/tonsillitis-adults/covid-19-and-tonsillitis
    2. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html 
    3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tonsillitis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20378483  
    4. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
    5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/strep-throat/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350344