The flu and COVID-19 are both respiratory viruses that can cause severe illness.
They are both spread through contact with respiratory secretions, such as saliva, mucus, or blood, or through contact with contaminated surfaces.
The symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 can be very similar, but there are some key differences in treatment and prevention.
The mortality rate for both viruses is a key difference and it is important to take steps to prevent getting either virus if you can.
In this article, we will explore all of the important information about both viruses including how they spread, symptoms, treatment, and mortality rate, and we will also discuss ways to prevent getting either virus.
The flu, also called influenza, is a highly contagious viral infection that can cause severe respiratory illness in your nose, throat, and lungs and can affect anyone at any age.
It is caused by a group of three different influenza viruses that affect humans: influenza type A, influenza type B, and influenza type C.
Influenza type A is the most common and severe type and is the only type to cause an influenza pandemic, while influenza type B is less common and usually causes a milder illness.
Influenza type C is the least common and usually also causes only mild symptoms.
Flu is a seasonal epidemic where cases typically peak from December through February in the United States while flu season runs from October through May although these can vary from year to year.
Symptoms of the flu are often similar to COVID-19 or the common cold, however, the symptoms of the flu are usually more severe than the common cold.
COVID-19, also called the coronavirus, is a novel (new) virus that was first identified in 2019 and has caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is similar to the flu in that it is a highly contagious viral infection that causes severe respiratory illness in the nose, throat, and lungs.
However, it is different from the flu in several key ways. First, it is caused by a different virus, SARS-CoV-19 which is not the same as the influenza virus.
Second, it has a much longer incubation period, which means it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear after exposure to the virus.
Third, it is more deadly than the flu with a much higher mortality rate.
Both viruses are highly contagious and are spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, talks, or sneezes.
These droplets can then land in the mouths or noses, mouths, or eyes of people up to six feet away and cause them to become infected.
Both viruses can also be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces, such as doorknobs, door handles, countertops, or phones by touching those surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
What are the similarities and differences in symptoms of the flu and COVID-19?
There are a number of similarities in common symptoms for both viruses. These similarities include:
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Body aches or muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
Both can cause vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea although these symptoms are more prevalent in children.
There are a few differences in symptoms between the two viruses and these include:
- Influenza has a shorter incubation time period than COVID-19, the flu typically incubates (meaning you are infected but do not yet have symptoms) for one to four days while COVID-19 can incubate for up to 14 days
- COVID-19 can cause a loss of sense of smell (anosmia) and the loss of sense of taste (ageusia) which rarely happens with the flu
What are the similarities and differences in treatment?
Treatment for both the flu and COVID-19 is similar in that it focuses on relieving symptoms and supporting the respiratory system. Treatment for both viruses includes:
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Humidifier or steam inhalation to help with a cough or sore throat
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or decongestants to help with fever, body aches, and congestion
If your symptoms become severe, continue to get worse, or get better and then get worse then you need to see your doctor. If you are having difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, please seek medical attention immediately.
There are a few key differences in treatment for the flu and COVID-19.
One difference is that there are antiviral medications that can be used to treat the flu, however, there are no specific antiviral drugs for COVID-19.
Currently, there are four antiviral medications approved for treating the flu by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these flu medications include:
- Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
- Zanamivir (Relenza)
- Peramivir (Rapivab)
- Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)
Additionally, if you have the flu you are typically treated as an outpatient unless you develop complications, however, with COVID-19 you are far more often treated as an inpatient in the hospital especially if you do not have the COVID-19 vaccine.
Besides an increased chance of hospitalization, if you have COVID-19 you are more likely to need intravenous medications, a ventilation machine, supplemental oxygen, and other treatments if you go to the hospital.
Are the complications for both viruses the same?
No, while both viruses can cause severe respiratory illness and bacterial pneumonia, the flu typically results in less severe illness than COVID-19 which is one of the most consistent differences.
Additionally, if you have an underlying health condition such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, acute respiratory disease, and asthma you are at a higher risk for developing complications from both viruses but again the flu typically results in less severe complications.
COVID-19 can cause long-term damage to your heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys, while the flu virus can cause inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis), multi-organ failure, ear infections, and sinus infections.
According to the CDC, in the 2019-2020 flu season approximately 35 million Americans got seasonal influenza with an estimated 20,000 deaths.
Conversely, as of June 29th, 2022, the past 28 days in the United States have seen 2,987,974 reported cases of COVID-19 with 9,624 COVID-19 deaths.
If these numbers over the past 28 days are extrapolated out to 35 million cases like the flu illnesses, there would be 112,732 deaths.
The data clearly shows that COVID-19 is far more deadly and as of June 29th, 2022, 67% of the American population has received the COVID-19 vaccine while the CDC reports that 52.1% of eligible people have vaccination coverage against the flu in the 2020-2021 season.
Despite higher vaccination rates for COVID-19, there is a higher risk of death if you get it as there were over five times the amount of deaths when taking into account the number of cases.
Please note that the numbers for the flu are annual estimates by the CDC while COVID-19 cases are all counted by the CDC, however, all cases of both viruses are not properly reported due to the ability to be able to recover from your own home and not having to seek medical attention.
What are the best ways to prevent getting both viruses?
The best way to prevent getting both viruses is to get vaccinated.
The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older need to get the flu shot vaccine (or nasal spray vaccine) every year with rare exceptions.
The COVID-19 vaccine is also available to anyone over the age of six months also now and is free for everyone regardless of insurance status.
It is important to note that the flu vaccine will not protect you from COVID-19 and vice versa, however, both vaccines are effective in preventing each virus.
Other ways to prevent getting both viruses and other infectious diseases include:
- Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if unavailable
- Avoiding close contact with sick people and wearing a face mask if you have to be around them
- Cover your cough or sneeze with the crook of your elbow or tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that are frequently touched such as door knobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Eating healthy foods and exercising regularly (150 minutes a week) to boost your immune system
- Getting enough sleep each night
- Wearing a mask when you are around other people, especially indoors and in large crowds
- Practicing social distancing of staying six feet away from people if possible
- Reducing stress as much as possible
Prevention is key when it comes to both the flu and COVID-19 and by following these simple tips, you can help keep yourself and your loved ones safe from both viruses.
Please note that after vaccinations you can still become infected with either virus, however, the symptoms will be much less severe if you do become infected and you are less likely to become infected with them.
The flu and COVID-19 are both viruses that can cause severe respiratory illness but there are many differences between the two viruses including how they spread, their symptoms, and their mortality rate.
It is important to get vaccinated against both viruses to help prevent their spread and to reduce the severity of their symptoms.
If you have any questions regarding COVID-19 or the flu, please consult your doctor or health care provider.
References, Studies, and sources:
- What Are the Differences Between COVID and Flu?
- How Do COVID-19’s Annual Deaths and Mortality Rate Compare to the Flu’s?
Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Estimated Flu-Related Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2019–2020 Flu Season
- Flu Vaccination Coverage, United States, 2020–21 Influenza Season
Becker’s Hospital Review
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