At every stage in the pandemic, we’ve added new terms to our everyday vocabulary: coronavirus, COVID-19, social distancing, delta, omicron … the list goes on and on.
The latest grabbing international headlines is “flurona,” a term that describes people who are infected with both the coronavirus and influenza at the same time. Confirmed cases have popped up in the United States, Israel, Brazil and elsewhere.
Wondering what it means for you? Here’s what you need to know.
‘Flurona’ isn’t actually new
The term “flurona” may be new and catchy, but the phenomenon isn’t, as Raghu Adiga, chief medical officer at Liberty Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, pointed out in this Scientific American explainer. News reports that make it sound like a “nightmare” are blowing the whole situation out of proportion — and missing the fact that it’s happened before, Adiga said.
“The way this story was taken out of context is yet another example of the kind of internet-based misinformation that haunts all of us who are trying to fight the real crisis at hand,” he wrote in the piece.
When a pandemic with millions of new cases daily collides with seasonal influenza “among a world population largely unvaccinated against either COVID-19 or flu, it is reasonable to find patients who may catch both viruses around the same time,” Adiga continued. Health care providers can run diagnostic flu and/or COVID tests to detect what you’ve been infected with.
And again, there have been documented (or suspected) cases of COVID/flu co-infection basically since the pandemic began. We may start seeing more of them now because the 2021 flu season was so benign (likely because of lockdowns, school closures and widespread masking), and there are concerns that this year’s flu season could be much worse. We’re also, of course, in the middle of an omicron surge that is driving up cases nationwide.
It can be serious, but experts say it’s not super common right now
While the recent flood of stories about “flurona” is arguably over-the-top, medical experts say it is important to take both COVID and the flu very seriously right now. Yes, the vast majority of people who get the flu or COVID recover. But there have also been more than 800,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States since the pandemic began. In any given year, the flu results in 12,000 to 52,000 deaths nationwide.
So even though co-infections are nothing new, they are something to be aware of. They can certainly put extra stress on people’s immune systems and increase the likelihood that you’ll get ill, particularly if you’re older or immunocompromised, for example.
“It is true that when you’re infected, your immune system is under attack. Therefore your immune defenses are weakened. And therefore your ability to defend against another infection is reduced,” said David Edwards, an aerosol scientist, faculty member at Harvard University and inventor of FEND, a nasal mist that aims to trap and flush out tiny pathogens.
That said, your personal odds of being exposed to both viruses simultaneously are pretty low, particularly if people around you are doing their part and staying home if they’re experiencing any symptoms.
“The probability of being exposed to both at the same time is quite small. It’s important for people to understand that when they hear the term ‘flurona,’ it’s not as though there’s this big, bad new combined viral infection that’s going to overtake omicron,” Edwards told HuffPost. “But it happens.”
Be on the lookout for typical COVID and flu symptoms
The hallmark symptoms of COVID-19 are the same as they’ve been throughout the pandemic: fever, cough, chills, muscle aches, shortness of breath and/or loss of taste or smell. But milder symptoms are also possible, such as a runny nose or a headache. Also, some people experience gastrointestinal symptoms rather than what people think of as more typical respiratory effects.
Symptoms of the flu are pretty similar, and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website, there’s a lot of overlap. Again, be on the lookout for a cough, stuffy nose, fever, aches, fatigue, etc. With the flu, symptoms typically appear one to four days after exposure. With the coronavirus, the timeline is more like two to 14 days (with the average being about five days) — though there’s growing evidence that omicron symptoms show up faster than with previous variants.
You can prevent flurona by taking all the right measures we’ve learned about during the pandemic
You really do not have to reinvent the wheel to protect yourself against flurona.
“The key best practices continue to remain getting vaccinated for flu, getting vaccinated and boosted for COVID when eligible, wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing from others, good hand-washing, staying home when sick, and getting tested for flu and COVID when sick,” said Matthew Kronman, associate medical director of infection prevention at Seattle Children’s in Washington.
Many experts say that now is a good time to upgrade to a KN95 or N95 mask if you haven’t already. Also, really err on the side of caution if you have any symptoms at all, even just one. It’s impossible for doctors to determine whether you’ve got a cough and runny nose because you’ve got omicron, because you’re developing a case of the flu, because you’ve got both, or whether you’re dealing with something else altogether — unless they test you.
So do your part to protect others. Stay home until you know what’s what and once you’re cleared of any infection.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.