(HealthNewsDigest.com) – With the onset of flu season, it’s a question many people may be asking. Because the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are similar, it’s easy to assume that there’s little difference between the two illnesses.
But COVID-19 and the flu do affect people differently. Most notably, COVID-19 is more likely to cause serious illness and death than is the flu. So it’s important to be able to distinguish between the two infections.
Here’s what Mayo Clinic experts know about how COVID-19 and the flu compare.
The similarities between COVID-19 and the flu
COVID-19 and the flu (influenza) are both respiratory illnesses that are caused by viruses.
They also spread in similar ways. Both viruses can spread between people who are in close contact — within 6 feet (2 meters) of each other. The viruses can also spread to people through contaminated surfaces. For example, you can contract the flu or COVID-19 by touching your mouth, nose or eyes after touching a surface with the virus on it.
COVID-19 and the flu also have some similar signs and symptoms, including:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue, or extreme tiredness
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle aches
- Nausea or vomiting (more common in children)
And finally, both COVID-19 and the flu can lead to serious complications, like pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome and even death.
The differences between COVID-19 and the flu
COVID-19 and the flu are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The flu is caused by infection with influenza A and B viruses.
COVID-19 also seems to be contagious for longer and spreads more easily than the flu. And COVID-19 can lead to symptoms not found with the flu, including loss of taste or smell.
It can also take longer for COVID-19 symptoms to appear. COVID-19 symptoms generally appear 2 to 14 days after exposure. Flu symptoms usually appear about 1 to 4 days after exposure.
Both COVID-19 and the flu can range from mild to severe illnesses. But COVID-19 is more likely to cause serious illness, like lung injury. And COVID-19 can cause different complications from the flu, like blood clots or inflammatory syndrome in children.
The death rate also is considerably higher with COVID-19 than with the flu. By mid-December 2020, out of 16 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S., there were more than 298,000 deaths. By comparison, during the 2019-2020 U.S. flu season, 38 million people had the flu, resulting in about 22,000 deaths.
And finally, there is a vaccine to protect against the flu. But researchers are only now on the verge of having vaccines to protect against the virus that causes COVID-19. Public health experts say that it will be well into 2021 before a vaccine is widely available.
How to tell if your symptoms mean COVID-19 or the flu
Because COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms, it can be hard to know which condition you have based on symptoms alone. But it’s vital that you get an accurate diagnosis.
The only way to be sure is to have a COVID-19 test done to confirm or rule out the COVID-19 virus. Testing for influenza is also available. Some facilities can even test for both COVID-19 and influenza with the same nasal swab. Contact your health care provider to ask about how and where to get tested in your area.
Many people with the flu or mild symptoms of COVID-19 are able to rest and recover in the comfort of their homes. Some people, however, may become seriously ill and need to be hospitalized.
How to protect against COVID-19 and the flu
The best way to protect against both COVID-19 and influenza is to avoid being exposed. Follow these guidelines to stay safe and healthy:
- Avoid large events and gatherings.
- Avoid close contact — within 6 feet (2 meters) — with anyone outside your household, especially if you’re at a higher risk of serious illness.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Wear a face mask when you’re in public spaces.
- Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces, like doorknobs, light switches and electronics regularly.