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With numbers rising, it's never been more important to recognize the difference between the two.

COURTESY PHOTO: HYTTALO SOUZA - As the temperatures drop, doctors are highly recommending people get their flu shot so as to lessen the burden on local hospitals.As numbers continue to climb pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the weather turns from cool to cold, local physicians are putting extra emphasis on reducing the spread of respiratory illness, like the flu, in an effort to limit the impact on medical professionals and society as a whole.

Dr. Patricia Auerbach, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare of Oregon, believes a key element to stemming the tide is understanding the difference between the seasonal flu and the coronavirus COVID-19.

How are they similar?

"COVID-19 and the flu have a similar disease presentation, and both cause respiratory illness, which presents as a wide range of symptoms — from asymptomatic to a mild to severe illness," Auerbach said in a digital statement. "Both viruses are transmitted by contact and droplets, and as a result, the same public health measures, such as hand hygiene, social distancing, and mask wearing are important actions all can take to prevent infection."

However, while similar in some ways, COVID-19 and the flu are dissimilar in others.

Auerbach said that the speed of transmission is an important point of difference between the two viruses. The flu has a shorter average incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) and a shorter serial interval (the time between successive cases) than COVID-19 virus. The serial interval for COVID-19 virus is estimated to be five to six days, while for the flu, the serial interval is three days.

"This means that the flu can show symptoms faster than COVID-19," she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed that the virus that causes COVID-19 is more contagious than the seasonal flu, with emerging research pointing to airborne transmission as the primary way that it spreads. That's in part why many states and health officials strongly recommend wearing two-layer, tightly fitting cloth masks in public spaces when maintaining at least six feet of distance is difficult or impossible.

COURTESY PHOTO: KELLY SIKKEMA - While similar, flu and COVID-19 symptoms are different, and recognizing the difference is beneficial to us all.Auerbach went on to say those most at risk for the flu are children, pregnant women, elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

"For COVID-19, our current understanding is that older age and underlying conditions, such as obesity, diabetes or hypertension, increase the risk for the most severe infection," Auerbach said.

The seasonal flu and COVID-19 do share some overlapping symptoms, so people may need to be tested to confirm a proper diagnosis.

• Symptoms of the flu — The flu usually comes on suddenly. Common symptoms include constant cough, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue.

• Symptoms of COVID-19 — COVID-19 symptoms include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, nausea or vomiting.

Despite the more lethal aspect of COVID-19, Auerbach and UnitedHealthcare stressed that the seasonal flu is not to be taken lightly, either. All available precautions should be taken this and every winter, Auerbac hsaid.

One of the best ways to help protect yourself and reduce your chances of getting the flu is to get the vaccine. People are highly encouraged to get their flu shots this year because the flu and COVID-19 together have the potential to overwhelm medical providers.

"If no other year, get the flu shot this year," Auerbach said. "You can get it at a point-of-care location, a pharmacy or from a clinic operated by a licensed medical professional."

According to the CDC, everyone who is at least 6 months of age should get a flu vaccine, unless they have an underlying condition where it's not advised.

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