How COVID-19 compares to the flu.

by Glenn Wortmann, MD, Medical Director of Infection Prevention at the MedStar Institute of Quality and Safety
March 26, 2020

Just as flu season comes to an end in the United States, the Novel Coronavirus Disease of 2019 (COVID-19) shows up to thwart your spring break plans. While there are many similarities between the two viruses, COVID-19 is also different from the flu in a variety of ways.

Since the flu has been around a long time, we know what causes it, how it spreads, and how to treat it. As we continue to learn new things about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, here are a few ways COVID-19 compares to the flu.

How COVID-19 and the flu are similar.

The flu and COVID-19 are both respiratory infections with similar symptoms.

Like the flu, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can cause mild to severe symptoms, including:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches

There is no particular order to symptom development for either COVID-19 or flu, but often symptoms worsen over a few days. Nearly 80% of people with COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate symptoms. Similar to the flu, most cases of coronavirus last for about one week, although this varies by person to person.  

In either case, if you have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, you should call a doctor right away.

The flu and COVID-19 are easily spread through the air and contact with infected surfaces.

Both the flu and COVID-19 are highly contagious and can be spread through:

  • Coughing or sneezing, which releases droplets of the infection within several feet
  • Direct contact with others, including shaking hands or touching

We are still learning about other ways COVID-19 may be spread.

Older populations have a higher risk of experiencing complications from COVID-19 or the flu.

Current data suggest that 10 to 15% of people with COVID-19 will need to be hospitalized because of health complications such as pneumonia. In general, people with weakened immune systems are at an increased risk of severe or fatal health complications arising from COVID-19 or the flu. That’s why it’s important to take extra precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or the flu to people: 

  • Over the age of 70
  • With underlying health conditions, including:
    • Cancer
    • Diabetes
    • Heart disease
    • Lung conditions

Most people fully recover from COVID-19 and the flu.

Whether you have the flu or COVID-19, your chances of a full recovery are high, even if you’re hospitalized. South Korea conducted nearly a quarter of a million COVID-19 tests broadly across the country and measured a fatality rate of just .6%. China’s data suggests that of those tested with COVID-19, 3% of cases were fatal. While both statistics are low, death is still possible, so it’s important to seek care if you have a higher risk of complications from either COVID-19 or the flu.

Most people who get #COVID-19 fully recover, but it’s important to do your part in minimizing its spread by following @CDCgov guidelines. Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Glenn Wortmann shares more on the #LiveWellHealthy blog.

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You can minimize the spread of the COVID-19 and the flu by taking steps to protect yourself and others.

Because the flu and COVID-19 are easily spread through contact with people, it’s important to take steps to minimize the spread of both diseases. Take the following preventative measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and the flu:

  • Wash your hands with warm soapy water as often as possible for at least 20 seconds at a time.
  • When water isn’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Stay home and avoid contact with others when you are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze using the inside of your elbow or a tissue.
  • Clean and disinfect countertops, doorknobs, light switches, and other frequently touched surfaces.

How COVID-19 is different than the flu.

Flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses.

While the flu is caused by different strains of the influenza virus, COVID-19 is caused by a new strain of coronavirus that first appeared in central China in December of 2019. 

You may be surprised to know that “coronaviruses” are not actually new, as several diseases classified as coronaviruses have affected the world in the past few decades, including: 

  • MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)
  • SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

Every major disease outbreak is different, and since COVID-19 is a new coronavirus strain, we are learning new information about it every day. The best way to respond is to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and do your part to help slow down the spread of COVID-19. 

There is no vaccination or antibiotic to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Unlike the seasonal flu, there is no medicine available to prevent or treat COVID-19 yet. Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, researchers are still working to develop something that can fight off the virus. It takes time to test the safety and effectiveness of any new medicine, so it may take more than a year for a vaccine to become available. 

We’re still learning new things about COVID-19.

We’ve only had a few weeks to observe COVID-19’s impact in other countries and now our own, so there is still a lot more to learn. For example, unlike the flu, children do not seem to be as affected by COVID-19 symptoms. We are also learning more about how it is spread, including how long the virus can remain on surfaces.

This is not the world’s first pandemic. We can apply the same principles used in the past to help slow down the spread of COVID-19. The most effective way to protect yourself and those around you is to:

  • Wash your hands
  • Practice social distancing as directed by the CDC
  • Avoid contact with others if you’re sick

You can stay updated on new COVID-19 developments at MedStarHealth.org/COVID-19To find out answers to frequently asked questions about COVID-19, watch the video below.

What to do if you suspect you have COVID-19.

Not everyone who has COVID-19 needs to see a doctor. However, if you have severe symptoms of COVID-19, you should seek medical advice by: 

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