Differences between flu and COVID-19 symptoms as vaccine drive brought forward

Watch: COVID-19 and flu autumn vaccination drive brought forward as new variant emerges in UK

The UK's flu and COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been brought forward after the emergence of a new coronavirus variant.

NHS officials have suggested the BA.2.86, which was first mentioned earlier this month, is the most concerning since the arrival of Omicron. Scientists say that while it has mutated, it has not yet been classed as a "variant of concern".

But, following advice from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the Department of Health and Social Care announced that vaccinations would start on September 11, having previously been due to start in October.

Read more: COVID-19 and flu autumn vaccination drive brought forward as new variant emerges in UK (Sky News, 2-min read)

People have been urged to take up the offer of the vaccines as soon as they are invited to come forward. For a full list of those to be offered both flu and COVID-19 vaccines visit NHS England.

Read the latest on the flu vaccine and COVID-19

Covid and flu syptoms. (Getty Images)
With COVID-19 and flu symptoms so similar, it can be hard to tell which one you have, without testing. (Getty Images)

Differences between flu and COVID-19 symptoms

Signs for both COVID-19 and the flu are very similar, and can be hard to distinguish between, so here's a look at how each virus might present in you.

What is flu and what are the symptoms?

The flu is a contagious respiratory disease caused by influenza viruses. Similarly to COVID-19, it is spread by droplets from an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking.

Flu symptoms, according to the NHS include:

  • a sudden high temperature

  • an aching body

  • feeling tired or exhausted

  • a dry cough

  • a sore throat

  • a headache

  • difficulty sleeping

  • loss of appetite

  • diarrhoea or tummy pain

  • feeling sick and being sick

While flu will often get better on its own, some can get seriously ill, which is why it's important to protect yourself with the NHS vaccine if you're advised to.

Symptoms present similarly in children, though they can get pain in their ear and seem less active too.

Man with flu symptoms. (Getty Images)
While flu often gets better by itself, some can become seriously ill. (Getty Images)

What is COVID-19 and what are the symptoms?

COVID-19 is also a contagious respiratory illness, but is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a form of coronavirus.

As per the NHS, symptoms include:

  • a high temperature or shivering (chills)

  • a new, continuous cough

  • a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste

  • shortness of breath

  • feeling tired or exhausted

  • an aching body

  • a headache

  • a sore throat

  • a blocked or runny nose

  • loss of appetite

  • diarrhoea

  • feeling sick or being sick

These are thought to be similar between adults and children.

Woman with COVID-19 symptoms. (Getty Images)
A headache and runny nose are some of the main symptoms of COVID-19. (Getty Images)

Since the start of the pandemic, the most common COVID symptoms have changed for a few reasons, including the introduction of vaccines and the emergence of new variants.

According to the most recent data from the ZOE Health Study, from the 30 days before December 5th, 2022, the top symptoms reported by contributors with positive COVID tests are:

  1. a sore throat

  2. a runny nose

  3. a blocked nose

  4. sneezing

  5. a cough without phlegm

  6. a headache

  7. a cough with phlegm

  8. a hoarse voice

  9. muscle aches and pains

  10. an altered sense of smell

The UKHSA on, currently states: "The symptoms of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections are very similar. It is not possible to tell if you have COVID-19, flu or another respiratory infection based on symptoms alone. Most people with COVID-19 and other respiratory infections will have a relatively mild illness, especially if they have been vaccinated."

Close up photo of senior patient arm with doctor`s hands making injection. Elderly patient wearing mask to stop coronavirus spread. Covid 19 vaccination. Old people. Elderly virus protection.
Don't delay in getting free COVID-19 or flu jabs this winter if advised or invited. (Getty Images)

What to do if you have flu or COVID-19

If you have flu, rest and sleep, keep warm, take recommended doses of paracetamol or ibuprofen and drink plenty of fluids.

Ask for an urgent GP appointment or call NHS 111 if any of the following apply:

  • you or your child have symptoms of flu and you're worried about your baby's or child's symptoms

  • you're 65 or over, you're pregnant, you have a long-term medical condition

  • you have a weakened immune system

  • your symptoms don't improve after seven days.

If you have COVID-19 symptoms, call NHS 111 if:

  • you're feeling worried or unsure what to do

  • you're worried about a baby or child under five

For either, try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have a high temperature or do not feel well enough to do your normal activities (taking extra care to avoid those at high risk).

Call 999 or go to A&E if:

  • you get sudden chest pain

  • you have difficulty breathing

  • you start coughing up a lot of blood

  • your child seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong

For more information see the NHS flu website or the NHS COVID-19 website.