Since COVID-19 began spreading, the public has often tried to compare it with the flu. Finding similarities in something we are trained to recognize can be reassuring when you’re fighting an invisible enemy.
But how alike are COVID-19 and the flu, really? We took a closer look, comparing and contrasting the two diseases with information available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s what we know.
Similarities: Symptoms range from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms. Common symptoms include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, sore throat, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.
Differences: Flu symptoms appear more quickly, usually within one to four days. COVID-19 symptoms may not appear for two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. A unique symptom of COVID-19 is change in or loss of taste or smell.
It is important to note that new symptoms are arising, and not all symptoms are always present, according to the Ohio Department of Health. If you feel sick, stay home and call your doctor.
Similarities: Everyone is susceptible to either virus, but older adults, those with other health conditions and pregnant people are at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms.
Differences: School-aged children infected with COVID-19 are at higher risk of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), which is a rare but severe COVID-19 complication. With the flu, healthy children are more at risk for complications in comparison to COVID-19.
Similarities: Common complications for COVID-19 and the flu include pneumonia, respiratory failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome, sepsis, cardiac injury, multiple-organ failure, worsening of chronic medical conditions, inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues, and secondary bacterial infections.
Differences: COVID-19 has also been associated with blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain, as well as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).
Similarities: Transmission of COVID-19 and the flu seems to be almost identical. Both diseases are spread easily from person to person through small respiratory droplets containing the virus. These droplets appear when someone coughs, sneezes or even talks. It’s also possible that a person can contract the virus by touching surfaces where these droplets land and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
You can spread both viruses to others without being aware you are infected. It’s important to follow recommendations to stop the spread, like hand-washing and maintaining a 6-foot distance from others.
Differences: While is seems COVID-19 and the flu spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious amongst certain age groups and populations. COVID-19 can spread quickly and easily to a lot of people, resulting in higher continuous spread than with the flu. The length of time someone with COVID-19 is able to spread the virus is still being reviewed but is generally believed to be 2 days prior to symptoms up to 10 days after symptoms appear, while someone with the flu is contagious from one day prior to symptoms appearing up until 7 days after symptoms appear. Infants and those who are immunocompromised can be contagious for longer periods of time.
Similarities: The actions we take to prevent the flu work against COVID-19 as well. These include frequent hand-washing, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, and covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or sleeve.
Differences: A new flu vaccine comes out each year to help prevent infection. There is no vaccine for COVID-19, but clinical trials are underway. Since anyone can spread COVID-19 to others even when they do not feel sick, the CDC highly recommends that everyone wear a face mask when in public settings and when around people who do not live in your household.
Similarities: We can test for the flu and COVID-19 to confirm infections. If you have recently traveled to an area with known COVID-19 cases or have been exposed to a person diagnosed with COVID-19, the CDC recommends you call your primary care doctor, and they will determine whether you need to be tested. People with other health conditions should call their doctor immediately, even if symptoms are mild. If you don’t have a primary care doctor, contact the Ohio Department of Health call center. The call center is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and can be reached at 1 (833) 4-ASK-ODH (427.5634).
Differences: The CDC has offered guidelines for testing that recommends who should be tested. While those who show symptoms for both COVID-19 and the flu can be tested, decisions are being left to state and local health departments and care providers for COVID-19 testing.
Similarities: Some over-the-counter medications can be used to manage symptoms of both the flu and COVID-19, such as acetaminophen for fever reduction. Antibiotics should not be used to prevent or treat the flu, COVID-19 and all other viruses. Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections.
Differences: There are antiviral medications that can shorten the duration of the flu, ease symptoms and prevent complications. While several clinical trials are ongoing to develop medication to treat COVID-19, no approved treatments exist at this time.The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has regularly updated guidance on treatment.
Infection and mortality rates
Similarities: While the majority of flu and COVID-19 cases are mild, some do result in death.
Differences: As of August 11, 2020, the CDC reports that 5,064,171 people in the United States and United States’ territories tested positive for COVID-19 with a national mortality 162,407. This brings the total mortality rate to 3.2%.
Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says the flu’s mortality rate is 0.1%. This would make COVID-19 32 times more lethal than the flu.
It’s important to note, though, that data is changing every day, and many mild cases of COVID-19 are not being confirmed through testing and counted. If all possible cases were confirmed, it would likely change the mortality rate.