Coronavirus and the Flu: What are the Differences?

Nan Kuhlman Nan Kuhlman March 18, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah

Many people liken coronavirus (COVID-19) to the flu. They say, “How bad can it be?” since the symptoms of both are so similar to each other (fever, cough, sore throat). But the reality is that COVID-19 is much more serious than the seasonal flu. It’s true that it should not be taken lightly, but there’s also no reason to panic. Taking the proper precautions (listed at the bottom of this article) can greatly minimize your risk of contracting the virus, let alone dying from it. Below, we will explain all the differences between COVID-19 and the flu.

 

Mortality Rate

 

COVID-19 has an estimated mortality rate of up to 4 percent, depending on age and other health factors, while the flu has a below 0.1% mortality rate — making COVID-19 around 20 times more deadly than the flu. Young, healthy individuals should not be too concerned, as their mortality rate falls below 1%. But those with poorly managed underlying health conditions and the elderly have more reason to worry.

 

Contagiousness

 

COVID-19 seems to be spreading “easily and sustainably,” according to the CDC. Its reproduction rate–number of infections caused by one infected person–is between 2 and 2.5. The WHO says this rate is higher than the flu, but they admit that it’s hard to make a comparison between the flu and COVID-19 due to estimates for both being “context and time-specific.”

 

Treatment and Vaccination

 

Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. Researchers and scientists are doing their best to develop a vaccine, but it will likely take months before they’re even close to producing an effective treatment. The seasonal flu, on the other hand, can be prevented with a yearly vaccine.

 

Other Differences Between Coronavirus and the Flu

 

Those infected with the flu usually experience rapid onset of symptoms, which include fever, body aches, and headaches, while those who contract COVID-19 experience similar symptoms (with the addition of a cough and difficulty breathing) only gradually. Additionally, the seasonal flu has never been considered a pandemic, while COVID-19 has been labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

 

Similarities Between COVID-19 and the Flu

 

The biggest similarity between COVID-19 and the flu is the way it spreads: through the air. To prevent getting COVID-19, take the same measures you’d take to prevent getting the flu: 

 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, covering all surfaces of your hands (backs, too), for about 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer if soap isn’t available.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Discard the tissue afterwards, and wash your hands.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • If you feel sick, even if you think it’s not COVID-19, stay at home.
  • Clean surfaces and objects that have been touched by other people.
  • Stay away from others. You don’t have to stay completely inside; you can sit outside or take a walk if the weather is nice. Just avoid other people or stay at least 6 feet away from them. 
  • Quarantine yourself. This is not necessary for the majority of people, but if you fall into an at-risk category, you may want to completely quarantine yourself.

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