Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all become more cautious of catching the virus, or any sickness that resembles it. As the world adapts to living with COVID, anxiety has caused many people to worry at the slightest sign of sickness, even though getting sick used to be a normal occurrence that was usually not a cause for concern.
While COVID-19 is often more serious than the typical flu, they are not always easy to distinguish. That’s why we’ve outlined all you need to know about the similarities and differences between flu and COVID-19.
How Are COVID-19 and Flu Similar?
Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses caused by viruses. One way they are similar is how the viruses (opens in a new tab). Both COVID-19 and the flu are spread between people who are in close contact, within six feet of one another. The viruses spread through droplets or aerosols, usually released through talking, sneezing, or coughing. If these droplets land in the mouth or nose of someone nearby, or they are inhaled, then the virus is spread to that person. They can also contract the virus by touching a surface that the virus is on and proceeding to touch their mouth, nose, or eyes.
They have some common symptoms, but ultimately affect people differently. The symptoms they share include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle ache
- Nausea and vomiting (more common in children than adults)
The symptoms of both of these illnesses can range from no symptoms to mild or severe symptoms. Since the signs are so similar, it can be hard to diagnose based on symptoms alone, so testing can be done to determine if you have COVID-19 or the flu.
Both COVID-19 and the flu can lead to similar complications, such as:
- Organ failure
- Heart attacks
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome
- Heart or brain inflammation
Many people who have COVID-19 or the flu can recover at home with rest and fluids. But, some people can become seriously ill from the viruses or have potentially fatal complications. Severe complications are more common in COVID-19 than influenza.
How Are COVID-19 and Flu Different?
COVID-19 and Influenza share similarities, but there are also many (opens in a new tab) between the two, including:
Both respiratory illnesses are caused by viruses, but they are not caused by the same virus. COVID-19 is caused by an infection with a coronavirus first identified in 2019, while influenza is caused by an infection with a flu virus. Influenza has been around for much longer, so doctors know more about how to treat and prevent it, whereas they are still learning about COVID-19.
- Spread and Symptoms
COVID-19 appears to spread more quickly and easily than the flu. It can take longer for people to show symptoms of COVID-19 and you can remain contagious for longer. A person may experience flu symptoms one to four days after infection, while a person can experience COVID-19 symptoms two to fourteen days after infection.
COVID-19 may cause a loss of taste or smell, and severe illnesses like lung injury are more frequent in COVID-19 than influenza. There is also a higher mortality rate in COVID-19, with more than 969,000 people dying in the United States, according to the (opens in a new tab), as opposed to over 10,000 deaths from influenza.
COVID-19 can also cause different complications from the flu, such as:
- Blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs, or brain.
- Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) and adults (MIS-A).
(opens in a new tab) can also occur, in which those affected can have new or recurring symptoms for four or more weeks after first being infected with the virus.
The flu can be treated with multiple antiviral drugs that are FDA approved for the treatment of influenza. There is currently only one antiviral drug, called (opens in a new tab), to treat COVID-19.
While the two viruses are similar, COVID-19 is often much more severe than the flu, and its causes, spread, symptom duration, and treatments are different. If you think you have contracted the COVID-19 virus or the flu, you should be tested. You can also have both viruses at the same time.
How Can I Prevent Getting the Flu or COVID-19?
There are multiple FDA-approved influenza vaccines to protect against the four flu viruses that scientists expect to circulate each year. You can get an annual flu vaccine to help reduce your risk of contracting the flu, as well as reduce the severity and risk of serious complications.
There are three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use to help prevent COVID-19, the preferred vaccines being Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The vaccine can help you prevent getting COVID-19, or prevent you from getting seriously ill if you do contract the virus.
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