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COVID-19 or the flu? Only a test can tell

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When Demi Barton developed a slight cough in September, she didn’t think much of it. 

“It wasn’t regularly occurring,” Barton said. “I just had to clear my throat a few times a day.”

A few days later, she developed a persistent headache — a rarity for her — that painkillers couldn’t remedy. Barton decided to get tested for COVID-19 on Sept. 15. Within the three days it took to get her results, Barton, 47, developed chills, fatigue, shortness of breath and lost her sense of taste and smell. While she wasn’t surprised when her COVID-19 test came back positive, she said she could have easily mistaken her symptoms for a bad cold. 

Traditional flu symptoms, such as fever, cough, muscle pain and stomach issues, mirror many symptoms of COVID-19. For that reason, Dr. Tamika Dawson of Indiana University Health Physicians Family and Sports Medicine recommends anyone exhibiting flu symptoms to get tested for COVID-19. 

“With COVID, you can have about the same symptoms as the flu, so it can be really hard to tell,” Dawson, a primary care physician, said. “Testing is really important, especially right now.”

To date, there have been 268,222 COVID-19 cases in Indiana. Dawson recommends every Hoosier get a flu shot because having the flu puts you at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19. From October 2019 through May 2020, roughly 129 Hoosiers died of the flu. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Indiana was March 6. Since then, 4,830 people in the state have died of the virus. 

While the situation in Indiana looks dire, Dawson said she’s hopeful there will be fewer flu cases this year thanks to masks and social distancing measures. 

“I think we’re absolutely going to see a decrease,” Dawson said. “In Australia, their flu season is in our summer. They saw a tremendous decrease in flu diagnoses, and it had everything to do with masks and social distancing.”

It’s not just the flu; COVID-19 symptoms mimic other illnesses as well.

For many, changes in the weather can bring about sinus infections. Tawnya Williams, 57, gets a sinus infection every year. When she began experiencing headaches and a runny nose in August, she called her doctor to get a prescription for antibiotics.

“He said no, and that ticked me off,” Williams said. “He told me I needed a COVID test, and I told him, ‘I don’t need no damn COVID test; it’s just a sinus infection.’ I went in to get tested and two days later the test came back positive.”

Williams ended up self-isolating for 28 days because her fever kept coming back. While the bulk of her symptoms — such as loss of taste and smell and her fever — have gone away, she still experiences a runny nose, muscle aches and memory issues as a result of the virus. 

“The symptoms really overlap with a lot of other stuff,” Williams said. “I’m a middle-aged woman, so I thought my fever was hot flashes at first. I never went to the doctor or took my temperature. You can explain everything about COVID away with other stuff.”

Dawson predicts masks will be more commonplace in future flu seasons and more people will be inclined to wear a mask out in public if they’re feeling sick. As for workers who fear a loss of income due to illness, Dawson said tracking your symptoms — and wearing a mask — can help you stay at work. 

“If you develop a cough that only lasts 24 or 48 hours, but you don’t develop a fever or chills or diarrhea, I think it’s safe to go back to work,” Dawson said. “Just wear a mask.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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