Flu or COVID Quiz: Which Is It? Expert Doctors List 7 Simple Questions To Help You Spot the Difference
Infectious disease and epidemiology doctors help you break down flu and COVID symptoms if you're looking for clues before you get tested.
Experts say the flu in North America is about to cycle into typical flu season patterns, emerging around October and peaking from December to February. Meanwhile, COVID’s peak cycles remain tough for researchers to fully pin down.
In September 2023, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that nationwide hospitalizations from COVID were climbing week over week, compared with almost no flu hospitalizations. Even so, as we head toward winter, public health officials and infectious disease experts project that COVID cases will likely spike alongside the flu—and the symptoms between the two aren’t quite as distinctive as they were in the earlier years of COVID. “While there are significant differences in the viruses from the scientist’s perspective, what we see in patients is similar at this point,” explains Carrie Horn, MD, Chief Medical Officer and Chief of the Division of Hospital & Internal Medicine at National Jewish Health.
Still, there are a few major differences. Dr. Horn explains that COVID still tends to cause more severe illness than influenza, and more COVID patients go on to develop complications. Both flu and COVID have treatments available that can decrease the risk of serious illness—but these medications are most effective with an early diagnosis (while flu and COVID vaccinations are still one of the most powerful ways to prevent severe infection from either—and most patients can get both shots on the same day).
Take the quiz below to help you identify whether it’s the flu or COVID, or perhaps another virus (heads-up: As of 2023, RSV vaccines are now available for some groups of adults).
Flu or COVID Quiz: Answer doctors’ questions
Christopher San Miguel, MD, an associate clinical professor and emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that clinically, it’s almost impossible to definitively diagnose the flu versus COVID without a test.
This handy yes-or-no COVID vs. flu quiz explains small differences between the two viruses, but it’s not a diagnostic tool. If you’re feeling under the weather, getting tested is important so you can start the right treatment and limit the spread to at-risk individuals and populations.
Only a test can confirm COVID or the flu
Ultimately, the only way to know if you have COVID or the flu is to take a test. Earlier this year, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first at-home test that can detect both influenza and Covid—but keep in mind that home tests can produce false positive and false negative results. In-clinic tests tend to be more accurate, and you’ll need a doctor’s diagnosis to start treatment with an anti-viral medication.
Carrie Horn, MD, Chief Medical Officer and Chief of the Division of Hospital & Internal Medicine at National Jewish Health
Christopher San Miguel, MD, an associate clinical professor and emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
Jason Zucker, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "COVID Data Tracker"
CDC: "The Difference between Flu and COVID-19"
US Food and Drug Administration: "FDA Authorizes First Over-the-Counter At-Home Test to Detect Both Influenza and COVID-19 Viruses"
Scientific Reports: "Symptom profiles of community cases infected by influenza, RSV, rhinovirus, seasonal coronavirus, and SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern"