The Flu vs. COVID-19: What You Should Know

Health Watch

By ALPA Staff

There’s no denying that COVID-19 has forever changed the world we live in. To further complicate matters, North America has officially entered the next flu season. The overlap of COVID-19 and the flu has public-health officials particularly concerned—some even speculating about the possibility of a “twindemic” in the coming months. To navigate the latest health concerns, it’s important to understand what we know about the two contagious respiratory diseases, how they compare, and the best course of action to limit the risk of infection.

COVID-19 and the flu may be difficult to initially differentiate because both share similar symptoms, including fever, fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle ache and headache, a cough, and a sore throat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises, “Both COVID-19 and flu can spread from person to person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet). Both are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the illness (COVID-19 or flu) cough, sneeze, or talk.”

Both diseases can range from being mild to severe—and in rare cases fatal. Those at high risk for the two viruses include the elderly and individuals with certain underlying chronic medical conditions. The CDC notes that COVID-19 symptoms can appear as soon as two days after exposure or as many as 14 days later, which is why the organization recommends a two-week quarantine period for people who’ve likely been exposed. For the flu, symptoms can develop between one to four days after infection. An accurate diagnosis for both viruses requires laboratory testing.

The CDC estimates there have been between 9 million and 45 million cases of the flu in the United States annually since 2010. Canada reported more than 48,000 cases in 2019. As Air Line Pilot went to press, current global COVID-19 cases were estimated to total more than 31 million. The mortality rates for both conditions remain comparatively low. Nonetheless, as the number of cases rise, so does the corresponding death total.

So what can we do?

Public-health officials have suggested that if we continue to practice social distancing, routine hand washing, and mask wearing when interacting with others to prevent COVID-19, these precautions could also limit the spread of the flu.

However, therapies for the two viruses differ. Although clinical trials are under way for a COVID-19 vaccine, there are currently no known effective vaccines or therapeutics. And since no trial COVID-19 vaccine has full FDA approval, the FAA considers participation in COVID-19 vaccine trials medically disqualifying for pilots for an indefinite period. ALPA representatives are working with the FAA to better define a policy as the science evolves. In Canada, the director of Civil Aviation Medicine stated that participation in medical trials isn’t considered compatible with aviation medical certification.

By contrast, shots are available to help prevent the flu, and medications can help ease its corresponding symptoms. Even though the flu vaccine isn’t effective against the COVID-19 virus, it’s highly recommended that individuals get a flu shot because in addition to preventing flu it could help lessen some of COVID-19’s most harmful effects.

The CDC estimates that if the United States were to increase the number of individuals receiving flu vaccinations by 5 percent, the nation could avoid more than 480,000 cases each year. Remarkably, only 45 percent of the U.S. population and 42 percent of the Canadian population received flu vaccinations for the 2018–2019 season.

While a healthy lifestyle—including eating right, exercising, maintaining a reasonable weight, and getting enough sleep—may not prevent infection by either virus, establishing these routines can contribute to a stronger immune system, which can help fight these diseases and potentially limit the risk of experiencing more serious symptoms. Combining these healthy habits with getting a flu shot and continuing to practice social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing remain the best protection.

For more information about key facts and misconceptions about flu vaccines and the latest news on this flu season, visit the CDC “Prevent Seasonal Flu” webpage.

Have Questions?

U.S. ALPA members with questions about COVID-19 or the flu can contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, at 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time.

Canadian members with questions are encouraged to call Canadian Pilot Assistance at 309-777-2572.

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)