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What’s the Difference Between Coronavirus, COVID-19 and the Flu?

Updated in April 2020

With COVID-19 spreading around the world and rates of infections and deaths continuing to climb, many have been wondering what the difference is between Coronavirus, COVID-19 and the flu (influenza).

There are clear similarities: they are all respiratory viruses whose primary symptoms include a fever and a cough. However, there are important differences as well. 

Here’s what you need to know about the difference between Coronavirus, COVID-19 and the flu.

COVID-19 is one strain of the coronavirus.

Researchers have identified seven strains of the coronavirus that can infect humans.  Four of them are very common and tend to cause mild symptoms, including a runny nose, sore throat, headache, cough and low grade fever. These four strains are so widespread that most people will have been infected by one of them at least once in their lifetime, though they likely won’t know it since the symptoms are indistinguishable from symptoms of other viruses that cause the common cold.

Although those four strains of the coronavirus cause mild respiratory infections, there are three strains of the virus that cause more virulent infections.

In 2003, an outbreak of the coronavirus strain SARS-CoV caused more than 8000 infections worldwide, and led to 774 deaths from SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

In 2012, another virulent strain of coronavirus was identified.  The outbreak of this virus, named MERS-CoV, began in Saudi Arabia and caused hundreds of deaths from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

SARS-CoV2 is the third terrible variety of coronavirus that causes the more commonly known COVID-19, which stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019. It causes severe symptoms and significant mortality, similar to the SARS and MERS coronavirus strains.

There’s a vaccine for influenza, but not for COVID-19 or other coronaviruses.

Every year, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) tracks strains of influenza that are traveling around the globe, and tries to predict which four strains, out of more than 100 possible strains, are most likely to hit the U.S. during our cold and flu season.  They use that information to formulate that year’s flu shot.  This is why you need a flu shot every year -- because each year, the strains included in the flu shot vary.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19 or any of the other coronaviruses yet.  Researchers are currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine, but it could take up to 18 months for it to become available.

While the flu shot doesn’t protect against coronaviruses, it’s still important to get the flu shot because it can protect you from the flu, which can mimic symptoms of COVID-19 and make the diagnosis less clear.

Mortality rates are significantly higher in COVID-19 than the flu.

From the data we have so far, COVID-19 has a higher mortality rate (i.e., it’s more deadly) than influenza. With influenza, an average of 0.1% of patients who contract the infection will die from it. 

Based on data collected from more than 100 countries affected by the current pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the average COVID-19 mortality rate is around 3%, which means it’s 30 times more lethal than the flu.

There’s no known treatment for COVID-19.

One of the major differences between COVID-19 and influenza is that there is a medication that can treat influenza, but there hasn’t been a proven COVID-19 treatment yet. 

Patients who have influenza can be treated with an antiviral medication that resolves the infection quicker and reduces secondary complications like pneumonia.  The most commonly-prescribed antiviral medications for the flu are called Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Xofluza (baloxavir).

Clinical trials are currently underway to find a treatment or cure for COVID-19.  But until a treatment and/or cure is established, the focus is on symptom support, including pain and fever control, I.V. hydration and supplemental oxygen.  In severe cases, patients are intubated and placed on a ventilator to assist with their breathing.

We’re still learning how COVID-19 is transmitted.

Influenza is primarily a respiratory infection that’s transmitted via respiratory droplets.  When an infected person coughs or sneezes, aerosolized droplets are released into the air, and can infect the respiratory tract of anyone nearby who inhales the virus-contaminated droplets. 

Coronaviruses are also commonly transmitted via respiratory droplets that linger in the air and quickly settle after an infected patient coughs or sneezes.  However, there is data to suggest that it could be transmitted in other ways, including talking, singing or laughing. Due to this type of transmission, the CDC is recommending staying six feet away from other people, as well as avoiding leaving the house except for essential needs and wearing a homemade mask when do you enter public spaces. It can also be transmitted when a person touches an infected surface, and then touches their face. This is why frequently sanitizing surfaces and not touching your face, especially in public spaces, is so important.

Research is also underway to determine if the COVID-19 virus can be spread via fecal-oral transmission, by contact with animals or by other means.


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