COVID-19 Coronavirus vs. Flu: What's the Difference Between Coronavirus and Flu?

COVID-19 coronavirus and influenza (the seasonal flu) are both respiratory diseases, and while both share similarities, there are also striking differences between the two. With the flu season impending in many parts of the globe, it is important to delineate between these two viral illnesses.

In this article, we look into the differences between the novel coronavirus vs. the flu. Check also our comparison article about coronavirus (COVID-19) and SARS.

Similarities Between the Coronavirus vs. Flu

Both diseases are transmitted from person to person. 

Most experts agree that the flu virus spreads via droplet transmission when an infected person sneezes or coughs out droplets that then spread to other people or surfaces within close proximities. Similarly, a person can contract COVID-19 by being within one meter of an infected person or by touching contaminated surfaces and subsequently touching their nose, eyes, or mouth without proper handwashing.

There is no treatment available to date for both diseases. 

As viruses cause both COVID-19 and influenza, antibiotics will not treat either disease. Instead, treatment is geared towards addressing the underlying symptoms or providing supportive therapy, such as lowering the temperature for high fevers or, in extreme cases, the use of mechanical ventilation for respiratory support.

Coronavirus Symptoms vs. Flu Symptoms

The novel coronavirus and the seasonal flu share similar symptoms, but these vary in onset and severity. The symptoms of COVID-19 develop gradually, while flu symptoms have an abrupt onset. In terms of incubation, or the time between exposure to the virus and the appearance of the first symptom, people with flu take around one to four days to show symptoms, while people infected with the coronavirus have between 1 to 14 days to display symptoms. More recently, a study revealed that COVID-19 carriers take five days to exhibit symptoms.

The following table reflects an overview of the flu vs. coronavirus symptomatology.

SYMPTOMSCOVID-19SEASONAL FLU
FeverCommonCommon
CoughCommonCommon
FatigueCommonCommon
Shortness of breathCommonLess common
Body aches and painsLess commonCommon
HeadachesLess commonCommon
Runny noseLess commonLess common
Sore throatLess commonLess common
VomitingLess commonLess common
DiarrheaLess commonLess common
Symptoms Comparison Table

Coronavirus vs. Influenza Symptoms Comparison Chart

Coronavirus (COVID-19) vs. Flu Symptoms Comparison Chart
Symptoms Comparison Chart

A Comparison of Vaccine Availability for Flu vs. Coronavirus

There are a few influenza vaccines already developed and readily available. However, because the influenza virus strain continually evolves, the vaccine strains are changed each year to ensure that these match the circulating strains as close as possible. Unfortunately, there is no available vaccine yet for COVID-19. Despite several clinical trials currently underway for this, scientists estimate that it would take no less than 18 months to develop a potent vaccine for the novel coronavirus strain.

A Comparison of the Infection Rate of Coronavirus vs. Flu

Although little is known about the novel coronavirus, it appears to be more contagious compared to the seasonal flu. The rate of how easily a disease spreads is expressed using the mathematical term R0. The New York Times reported early research suggesting that COVID-19 has an R0 of 2.6, considerably more substantial than the flu's R0 of 1.3. To put this into perspective, if four people get infected with the new coronavirus and no containment measures were in place, the virus can spread to 13 people in just the first cycle and up to 272 people after five cycles. On the other hand, if the same number of people had the seasonal flu, the virus can spread to 9 people in the first cycle and up to only 36 people after the fifth cycle.

The following chart illustrates how rapidly the new coronavirus vs. seasonal flu spreads.

Coronavirus vs. Flu Spreading Chart
Coronavirus vs. Flu Spreading Chart

Despite the above numbers, however, the seasonal flu seems to affect more people than that of the new coronavirus. An infectious disease specialist from John Hopkins reported an estimated worldwide incidence of flu at 1 billion cases annually, compared to 117,055,507 global cases of COVID-19 from January 2020, but it may increase.

Notable points to consider when interpreting these numbers are the availability of vaccines for influenza, the social distancing measures currently implemented for the novel coronavirus, as well as the limited testing done for the latter – all of which affect the numbers described above. 

How Do the Coronavirus vs. Flu Death Rates Compare?

According to the World Health Organization, the fatality rate for influenza globally is between 290,000 to 650,000 annually or 0.065% of the 1 billion cases worldwide. This is in stark contrast to the coronavirus total death toll reported at 2,597,213 deaths or about 6% of the total confirmed cases worldwide. Because a new virus causes COVID-19 and there is yet to be a vaccine for this, the projection is that the number of deaths from coronavirus vs. flu deaths may still increase significantly.

Preventative Measures for Coronavirus vs. Common Flu

The WHO recommends vaccination as the most effective means of preventing the common flu. Other than vaccines, the WHO strongly encourages protective measures, such as:

  • Frequent handwashing.
  • Practicing proper respiratory hygiene, such as covering the nose and the mouth when sneezing or coughing, and using and disposing of tissues appropriately.
  • Avoiding close contact with unwell people.
  • Avoiding touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.
  • Self-isolating as early as possible if you feel unwell, feverish, or experiencing symptoms of the flu.

Of note, WHO recommends the same principles for preventing coronavirus transmission with the addition of seeking urgent medical attention when experiencing fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. They further encourage patients to call their healthcare providers in advance before attending, to help providers direct the patients to the right facility.

Comparison Video

Coronavirus vs. flu: What's the difference?

The Final Words

COVID-19 and the common flu are respiratory illnesses that share some similar symptomatology and transmission patterns. The difference between the new coronavirus vs influenza (the flu) is the former's symptoms appear gradually; it is more contagious and has no available vaccines to date. In contrast, the latter has a more abrupt symptom onset with readily available vaccines. No treatment is available for neither illness, but preventative measures, such as those outlined by the WHO, prove to be effective in minimizing the spread of either disease.

References:

About Coronavirus Data 

The data is provided from Johns Hopkins University via the API, NovelCOVID API and some other sources mentioned in this article. COVID-19 data is updated on average every hour (from Johns Hopkins University), however, it may be out of date and not accurate because it changes rapidly. COVID-19 data doesn’t include all cases, because it includes only people who tested positive. You may also check information about reported cases on the WHO website.

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Image Courtesy:

  • Images by CDC on Unsplash

Author & Researcher @ Difference 101 Master in Philosophy & Data Analysis, Sorbonne Université (Graduated 2011) Lived in New York City

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