It’s possible to catch more than one respiratory virus at the same time. That means you could get a cold or the flu along with COVID-19. But so far, these “coinfections” haven’t happened enough for scientists to study them very much. Experts think that’s due to all the physical distancing and other safety measures we took to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
There’s some evidence your immune system might protect you from viral coinfections. But we need more research to know if that’ll happen with COVID-19.
Ellen Foxman, MD, PhD, an immunobiologist with Yale Medicine and assistant professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, says it doesn’t matter if you get the rhinovirus -- the main cause of the common cold -- or the viruses that cause flu or COVID-19.
“Within a few days, your body turns on a really rapid antiviral defense system that protects against all viruses.”
That means your odds of a second virus most likely go down shortly after you get the first one.
There was a huge drop in cold and flu illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, that lowered the chances of coinfections. Though, Foxman says this year might be different. “If schools and workplaces reopen and there is less use of masks and social distancing, we are likely to see more flu, and this may include some flu and COVID-19 coinfections.”
If you do get sick, here are some expert tips on how to get well.
Most people don’t need to go to the hospital to get better. That’s the case no matter which respiratory virus you get. “If you have cold symptoms, just stay home and take care of yourself,” Foxman says.
Michelle Puzio-Bell, DO, an internist with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group, says you’ll want to keep sick kids out of school, and adults should stay away from the office. Though, you shouldn’t work too hard at home. “The best thing you can do is rest,” she says.
Wear a mask around other people. If possible, avoid close contact with loved ones. Be extra safe around anyone who’s got an ongoing medical condition. Their immune system might not work very well, even if they’re vaccinated.
“If your child has cold-like symptoms, and you don’t know what’s causing it, you don’t really want them to be around that grandparent who’s battling cancer,” Foxman says.
Not everyone needs to know which virus they have. But certain groups are more likely to get really sick or die from COVID-19. It’s possible that a coinfection with another virus, such as the one that causes flu, could make things worse. But that’s not something experts know a lot about right now.
In certain cases, you might want to get tested for flu and COVID-19 when you first notice symptoms. That includes if you have fever, cough, and other cold-like symptoms and you’re in a high-risk group.
You or your child might get very sick from flu or COVID-19 if you’re one of the following:
- Older than 65
- Very young
- You have more than one health condition
- You have asthma or other lung diseases
- You have obesity
- You have a weakened immune system
Monitor and Treat Your Symptoms
Foxman says viruses that cause cold, flu, or COVID-19 can affect you in different ways. But they tend to cause some similar symptoms, such as stuffy nose, tiredness, or muscle aches.
It doesn’t really matter which virus it is -- you can treat mild symptoms the same way. Here are some things you can do:
- Drink fluids
- Sleep more
- Ask your doctor about over-the-counter drugs, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
Go to the ER right away if you can’t breathe well. Foxman says viruses that cause flu or COVID-19 can damage your lungs. The common cold can lead to big problems another way -- the tubes that bring air down to your lungs can narrow. You can get serious asthma-like symptoms. “Wheezing can be life-threatening, because if those airways close, that’s a problem,” she says.
If you or a loved one gets serious symptoms, Foxman says you should head to the hospital. Call first to see if there are any special rules for people who have COVID-19. Here’s what to watch for:
- Shortness of breath
- Very high fever
- Ongoing chest pain or pressure
- Trouble staying awake
- Pale, gray, or bluish skin or lips
We need more research to know if a coinfection will make your symptoms twice as bad. But Benjamin D. Singer, MD, who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says there’s some limited evidence that people with the flu and COVID-19 fare about the same as those with COVID-19 alone.
Some lab studies show it’s possible for certain flu viruses to worsen the effects of SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that causes COVID-19. But that research wasn’t done on humans. Experts agree it’s too soon to predict if that’s what would happen to people.
Call Your Doctor
It’s OK to check in with your health care provider any time you’re sick or have questions. Let them know if your symptoms get worse or if you have another health condition. They can give you some tips on how to get better at home and let you know when it’s time to get medical care.
A vaccine can protect most people against future COVID-19 and flu infections. These shots help keep you from getting really sick even after you’ve already caught either virus. But you don’t want to get a vaccine while you’re still under the weather. Your doctor can tell you how long you’ll need to wait.