When all of this started, people were quick to say that COVID-19 was like the flu. What did we learn? This was not the case. Yes, COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious respiratory illnesses. And while some of their symptoms are similar, they affect your body in different ways.
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We’re still in a pandemic situation. (Yes. We are.) We’re also smack dab in the middle of flu season. So, is it possible for COVID-19 and flu to coexist in your body? And if so, is this illness worse than a single case of either infection? Microbiologist and pathologist Daniel Rhoads, MD, helps us get to the bottom of this and gives some helpful advice for managing what has become known as “flurona.”
Is co-infection a new phenomenon?
Short answer — no.
“Before COVID-19 emerged, people would get multiple viruses that cause common colds or common coronaviruses. And then, with rhinovirus and adenovirus, they’re hard to tell apart. You also could have a handful of other things like human metapneumovirus and adenovirus. People can get more than one or sometimes, more than two at the same time,” explains Dr. Rhoads.
So, why are we hearing about ‘flurona’ now?
Between the end of January and March of 2020, reports of co-infection emerged out of Wuhan, China. Ninety-seven out of 213 patients who were treated for COVID-19 at Tongji Hospital also tested positive for influenza A, which is a flu virus that tends to cause seasonal outbreaks. There were also reports of co-infection in the United States and other countries.
“COVID-19 first emerged in the middle of flu season. Both were circulating for a short period and then COVID-19 kind of crowded out influenza. It was like the flu disappeared or went incognito,” Dr. Rhoads says.
He adds that last year, flu season was pretty much non-existent in the northern hemisphere.
“It just wasn’t circulating. This year, influenza did manage to come back at the same time that COVID-19 is still circulating. Since they’re both around, there will be some overlap and co-infections,” says Dr. Rhoads.
Who’s at risk for ‘flurona’?
Since cases of COVID-19 and flu co-infection have been pretty minimal so far, Dr. Rhoads says it’s too early to connect the occurrences to specific groups or medical conditions. But he says, if you’re prone to catching respiratory infections or living with a condition that compromises your immune system, you’ll want to be careful. And if you’re still hanging out with a bunch of people despite all the warnings since 2020, you’re putting yourself at risk for “flurona.”
“If you’re at risk for getting respiratory viruses, there’s a chance that you’ll get more than one. Also, respiratory viruses are passed from person to person. So, the more people you’re around, the more chances you have to be exposed to different viruses,” advises Dr. Rhoads.
With all the unknowns, it doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions right now, especially if you’re older or have an underlying condition that puts you at greater risk for contracting COVID-19. Dr. Rhoads adds that those who are immunocompromised need to protect themselves.
“If someone is immunocompromised, they need to be extremely careful for multiple reasons. Their immune system might not be able to fight off both infections and the vaccines might not be as effective. So, someone who is immunocompromised would be at risk from multiple angles,” Dr. Rhoads says.
Will ‘flurona’ make you even sicker?
Again, since there haven’t been a large number of co-infection cases, Dr. Rhoads says it’s still too soon to tell.
“It’s not necessarily worse clinically if more than one virus causes an infection. But we’ll have to look at the data and see if co-infection with flu and COVID-19 changes the clinical course at all. Right now, we don’t have enough data to know at this point,” he notes.
How is ‘flurona’ treated?
For severe infections, Dr. Rhoads says there are oral therapies available to help treat both COVID-19 and the flu. These therapies would fall along the lines of oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and antiviral pills.
Milder symptoms can be managed at home with over-the-counter medications and fever-reducers. And should you find yourself with this combo of respiratory illness, be sure to isolate, so you don’t pass “flurona” on to friends or family.