Diagnosing Flu

Questions & Answers

 

How do I know if I have flu?

Your respiratory illness might be the flu if you have fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and/or fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children. People may be sick with flu and have respiratory symptoms without a fever. Flu viruses usually cause the most illness during the colder months of the year. However, influenza can also occur outside of the typical flu season. In addition, other viruses can also cause respiratory illness similar to flu. So, it is impossible to tell for sure if you have flu based on symptoms alone. If your doctor needs to know for sure whether you are sick with flu, there are laboratory tests that can be done.

What kinds of flu tests are there?

A number of flu tests are available to detect influenza viruses in respiratory specimens. The most common are called “rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs).” RIDTs work by detecting the parts of the virus (antigens) that stimulate an immune response. These tests can provide results within approximately 10-15 minutes but are not as accurate as other flu tests. Therefore, you could still have flu, even though your rapid test result is negative. Other flu tests are called “rapid molecular assays” that detect genetic material of the virus. Rapid molecular assays produce results in 15-20 minutes and are more accurate than RIDTs. In addition, there are several more accurate and sensitive flu tests available that must be performed in specialized laboratories, such as those found in hospitals or state public health laboratories. All of these tests require that a health care provider swipe the inside of your nose or the back of your throat with a swab and then send the swab for testing. Results may take one to several hours.

How well can rapid tests detect flu?

During an influenza outbreak, a positive rapid flu test is likely to indicate influenza infection. However, rapid tests vary in their ability to detect flu viruses, depending on the type of rapid test used, and on the type of flu viruses circulating. Also, rapid tests appear to be better at detecting flu in children than adults. This variation in ability to detect viruses can result in some people who are infected with flu having a negative rapid test result. (This situation is called a false negative test result.) Despite a negative rapid test result, your health care provider may diagnose you with flu based on your symptoms and their clinical judgment.

Will my health care provider test me for flu if I have flu-like symptoms?

Your respiratory illness might be flu if you have fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and/or fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children. People may be sick with flu and have respiratory symptoms without a fever. Flu viruses usually cause the most illness during the colder months of the year. However, influenza can also occur outside of the typical flu season. In addition, other viruses can also cause respiratory illness similar to flu. So, it is impossible to tell for sure if you have flu based on symptoms alone. If your doctor needs to know for sure whether you are sick with flu, there are laboratory tests that can be done.

Please visit diagnosing flu for more information.

Can I have flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

Yes. It is possible to have flu, as well as other respiratory illnesses, and COVID-19 at the same time. Health experts are still studying how common this can be.

Some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, making it hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Diagnostic testing can help determine if you are sick with flu or COVID-19.

Is there a test that can detect both flu and COVID-19?

Yes. CDC has developed a test that will check for A and B type seasonal flu viruses and SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This test will be used by U.S. public health laboratories. Testing for these viruses at the same time will give public health officials important information about how flu and COVID-19 are spreading and what prevention steps should be taken. The test will also help public health laboratories save time and testing materials, and to possibly return test results faster.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given CDC an Emergency Use Authorizationexternal icon for this new test. Initial test kits were sent to public health laboratories in early August 2020. CDC will continue to manufacture and distribute these kits.

More information for laboratories is available.

Will the new test that detects both flu and COVID-19 replace other tests?

No. This new test is designed for use at CDC-supported public health laboratories at state and local levels, where it will supplement and streamline surveillance for flu and COVID-19. The use of this specialized test will be focused on public health surveillance efforts and will not replace any COVID-19 tests currently used in commercial laboratories, hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings.

CDC’s first viral test for SARS-CoV-2 (the CDC 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel (ER-34)) will still be available for qualified laboratories to order through the International Reagent Resource (IRR) external iconexternal icon. The new multiplex assay can also be ordered through the IRR. Check the IRR website for details.

For additional questions, please visit: Clinical Questions about COVID-19: Questions and Answers: Testing, Diagnosis, and Notification

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