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Coronavirus vs. the flu: what’s the difference?

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on September 28, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


In the early stages of the pandemic, many people compared the novel coronavirus to the seasonal flu before understanding the true danger that COVID-19 poses. Today, with flu season around the corner, understanding the difference between coronavirus and the flu can help you feel more prepared to protect your health and stay safe. COVID-19 and the flu overlap in a lot of ways, but they also have distinct, unique features. So how is coronavirus different from the flu?

Read on to learn more and—if you’re experiencing symptoms, consider taking the Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit, a coronavirus test kit that may help you find out what’s causing your symptoms.

A different kind of virus

When looking at the difference between the novel coronavirus and the flu, it’s important to note that both SARS-CoV-2 (the name for the novel coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19) and the seasonal flu are caused by different types of viruses. Coronaviruses make up a broad family of viruses that can infect humans and some animals.

Coronaviruses get their name from spiky projections appearing on their surfaces, making them look like crowns (“corona” is Latin for crown). This family of viruses has been known to cause numerous outbreaks all over the world. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which caused an epidemic in 2002, was a type of coronavirus. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was also a coronavirus outbreak that spread through South Korea in 2015. However, not all coronaviruses are as devastating or dangerous. The common cold, for instance, is often caused by a coronavirus.

The flu is caused by two main types of influenza viruses: influenza A and influenza B. These can be further broken down into strains and subtypes. These two influenza viruses are responsible for the seasonal flu outbreak in the United States and elsewhere. The influenza virus evolves every year, but annual vaccines can help reduce its spread.

Flu vs. coronavirus: symptoms

Both the flu and the novel coronavirus are considered a respiratory illness, affecting the nose, throat, bronchi, and lungs. This leads to similarities and an overlap in symptoms.

Flu symptoms

Seasonal flu symptoms generally include:

  • Muscle aches
  • A fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Sweats and chills
  • Dry, persistent coughs
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Physical fatigue and weakness

While the average person can get sick with seasonal influenza with generally little complications, the flu can be dangerous and potentially fatal to certain individuals. This includes people over the age of 65, younger children (especially those under the age of 12 months), and anyone with a suppressed immune system.

Novel coronavirus symptoms

When looking at novel coronavirus vs. flu symptoms, the known symptoms involve many of the same flu symptoms stated above. However, those who test positive for the novel coronavirus and develop COVID-19 may experience:

  • Shortness of breath or general difficulty breathing
  • A sudden loss of smell or taste
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

More research is needed to fully understand the symptoms of COVID-19, while the flu has fairly well-known symptoms that are easy to identify. Some studies show that rashes could be one of the key symptoms of COVID-19. In some rare cases, children with the novel coronavirus have developed conjunctivitis or pink eye. Other people who test positive for the coronavirus may develop swelling, discoloration, and itchiness in their toes.

Some people who test positive for coronavirus may actually be asymptomatic, meaning they don’t display any obvious outward symptoms. Therefore, an infected person may be carrying the respiratory illness and not even know.

Treating the flu

For the average person, the flu resolves on its own with bed rest, good food, and plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.

Antiviral medication

More severe cases or cases in individuals with a high risk of complications may require the use of antiviral medication. However, it’s important to understand that these medications will not immediately improve one’s condition, but they can help prevent serious complications and shorten the length of illness by about a day. These medications can come with their own side effects, particularly nausea and vomiting.

Flu vaccine

Other than antivirals and bed rest, the best way to tackle the flu is to prevent it from ever happening with a flu shot. Flu vaccines are readily available beginning in the fall. While they do not completely guarantee you won’t catch the flu, they are still an effective preventative tool. The flu vaccine has been shown to reduce flu-related hospitalizations and prevent flu-related deaths in children.

The flu vaccine works by allowing the immune system to develop antibodies that can protect the body against infection. These antibodies develop over the course of a couple of weeks following the vaccination. As mentioned above, influenza viruses are constantly evolving, which is why a new flu vaccine is needed every year. Most of the flu vaccines in the United States work to protect you against four different flu viruses. These vaccines are referred to as quadrivalent and protect against two influenza A viruses (H1N1 and H3N2) and two influenza B viruses. There are also trivalent vaccines that protect against the two influenza A viruses and just one influenza B virus.

Treating COVID-19

There is currently no known cure or vaccine for COVID-19. For mild cases, recovery at home with bed rest, plenty of fluid intake, and self-isolation is often the recommended treatment approach. Supportive care usually revolves around reducing symptoms and may include taking cough syrup and over-the-counter pain relievers. It’s also important to monitor your own symptoms and notify your healthcare provider of any potential complications.

For many people with mild cases of COVID-19, the virus runs its course within one to two weeks. However, some surveys show that recovery may be longer than initially thought, pushing beyond two to three weeks, even in mild cases in healthy patients. So you may be wondering: how long does coronavirus last? It really depends on the person and their own immune system health—the answer can be different for everyone.

Preventing flu and the novel coronavirus

Prevention measures for the flu and COVID-19 are very similar. One key concern with COVID-19 is that many people are not immune to the novel coronavirus, and studies still haven’t conclusively shown whether antibodies developed from a coronavirus infection can substantially protect against reinfection. This means that preventing coronavirus requires important precautions for everyone:

  • Social distancing is well-known to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection. This involves maintaining a distance of at least six feet from people who are not in your household, avoiding crowded gatherings, and minimizing the amount of time you spend going out in public spaces. Social distancing has become a well-practiced safety measure worldwide.
  • You may be wondering: do masks prevent coronavirus infections? In fact, it’s become increasingly clear that wearing a mask when you venture outside is vital to slowing the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask keeps you from breathing in any potential viral droplets in the atmosphere. If you are an infected person and carrying the virus, a mask also helps prevent you from transmitting the virus to others via respiratory droplets.
  • Frequently washing your hands, especially before meals and after returning home, can also minimize transmission by eliminating viruses that are potentially on your hands. Wash with soap and warm water for 20 seconds and dry with a clean towel.

Due to the overlap of symptoms, knowing whether you have the flu or the novel coronavirus can be challenging—but testing can help you find answers.

Not sure how to test for coronavirus? If you are unable to reach a testing site or want to get tested in the safety and comfort of your own home, consider taking the Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit. This at-home COVID-19 test is FDA-authorized and provides you with quick, accurate results (typically within 24-48 hours of the lab receiving your sample).


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References

1. Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 28, 2020.

2. Coronavirus - How to Protect Yourself & Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 28, 2020.