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Coronavirus or flu? Your guide to knowing the difference

As we’re still dealing with the impact of a global pandemic during winter, it’s understandable to be concerned about both the flu and coronavirus (COVID-19). Here are some tips to help keep you and your family healthy during flu season.

For many of us, the change of seasons usually requires no more thought than finding your winter coat and adding an extra blanket to the bed. But this year, you may have more on your mind.

As temperatures drop, your concerns around the flu (influenza) and COVID-19 might increase. But that doesn’t have to be the case. We’ve collected lots of information about these illnesses, as well as strategies for staying virus-free and stress-free during these times.

2020 – a year like no other

Although it’s wise to be wary of how both viruses spread, emerging evidence suggests the COVID-19 pandemic could result in fewer flu cases this year.

Data from the Australian Government Department of Health shows that in 2020, Australia began with relatively high flu rates. We had 6,974 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in January and 7,167 in February. However, cases have since taken a nosedive, with 5,891 recorded in March and only 307 in April (compared with 18,691 cases in April 2019).

“We were getting a surge [of flu cases] in January/February, then we instituted… social distancing and reminders about good handwashing. To a lesser extent, the decrease in international travel has been important, too,” says Professor Robert Booy, Senior Professorial Fellow at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. “So come March/April, the flu incidence just plummeted… and that’s because people aren’t close to each other, they’re not coughing on each other, they’re not hugging each other.”

Although your health concerns may be different this year, the advice around keeping yourself and those around you healthy remains the same as it has from past winters.

Consider getting the flu shot

The flu vaccination doesn’t protect you from COVID-19, but it is critical to protecting Australians from the flu.

"There are at least four good reasons to have the flu jab – and even more so because of COVID-19," says Professor Booy. "First, to prevent flu. Second, to prevent you from passing flu to someone else, especially a vulnerable person. Third, when you get the symptoms of flu, you might be very worried that it could be COVID-19, and you really don’t want to have that anxiety hanging over you. And finally, we don’t know yet, but we worry that if you catch both together, it may be a more severe illness."

Experts recommend that every Australian aged six months and older should have a flu vaccination each year. Up-to-date flu vaccines are available from your GP, community health clinics and some pharmacies. The shot is free through the National Immunisation Program Schedule for some groups; private health insurance doesn’t cover it.

There is currently no vaccination for COVID-19.

Prevention

Some people may be carriers of either influenza or COVID-19 but show no symptoms. To reduce the risk of catching or transmitting either virus, it’s important to practise:

  • good hygiene by frequently washing your hands, coughing into your elbow and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects
  • social distancing by maintaining space from other people (especially those who are sick) and avoiding crowds
  • staying home if you're experiencing symptoms like a runny nose or sore throat - while this is likely to be just the common cold, staying home protects others in the community, like people with weak immune systems
  • self-isolating if you have COVID-19, have been in close contact with a confirmed case or arrived in Australia after midnight on 15 March 2020.

Coronavirus or flu: Here's how to tell the difference

If, despite your best efforts to stay healthy, you do feel unwell or develop symptoms, you should see a health professional. The Australian Government Department of Health recommends healthdirect’s online coronavirus symptom checker.

"In regard to flu versus COVID-19, both viruses can cause issues with breathing," says Dr Billy Stoupas, GP and spokesperson for The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP). "So anything along the respiratory tract can be affected … like your smell, your taste, your breathing patterns, cough, sneezing and running nose."

According to Professor Booy, the most important thing with coronavirus is to look for a dry cough, with fever, that progresses to shortness of breath.

It’s important to remember, however, that some people with COVID-19 have only a very mild case or show no symptoms of respiratory illnesses like coronavirus.

Getting medical advice

If you need medical advice, the National Coronavirus Helpline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 1800 020 080.

If you’re concerned that your symptoms may be due to COVID-19, the Department of Health recommends calling ahead to book an appointment with a doctor or before going to hospital.

Make sure you take any suggested precautions, such as wearing a mask, staying at least 1.5 metres away from others and coughing or sneezing into your elbow. Be sure to tell your doctor about your symptoms, travel history and any recent contact you’ve had with someone who has COVID-19.

Your doctor will let you know whether you should get a test and if so, will arrange for one.

"Testing’s become quite easy to access, depending on what state you’re in," says Dr Stoupas. "So we would encourage people that it’s okay [to get tested] if they are feeling unwell, if they’re not sure or if they’re going to visit someone elderly and they just want to check."

Looking after your wellbeing

Feeling worried about diseases is normal. But according to the government’s Head to Health program, excessive worry can affect both your physical and mental health. If you’re concerned about your health or your family’s health as restrictions start to ease, the program offers some practical tips around keeping organised and informed, staying engaged with others and ‘switching off’ from social media and news to tune out the ‘noise’.

Basically, during this transition, check in with yourself and others, try to reduce stress and seek support when you need it.

Talking to a doctor or mental health expert can help. You can even have a video consultation with a GP from the comfort of your home through our partnership with GP2U. Eligible HCF members also have access to mental health professionals through our partner PSYCH2U.

Where to find out more

No-one could have predicted what this year would bring. But as we begin to emerge from our homes, rug up for the cooler months and lend support to those who’ve done it tough, it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together.

If you have further questions or need additional support, plenty of trusted sources are available, offering easy to understand information and advice.

Words by Rosannah Snelson
First published June 2020

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