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The Difference Between COVID-19 and the Flu

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By Sharon Oliver

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between a cold, a sinus infection or even allergies. A runny nose can stem from too much spicy food consumption and a cough can come out of nowhere. But with the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), many are rethinking those mild symptoms. As officials warn everyone not to panic, educating one's self is key.

So, what is the difference between COVID-19 and the common cold or flu? Several medical experts offer up some answers.

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Common COVID-19 Symptoms

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According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of the coronavirus are cough, fever and shortness of breath. Flu symptoms include: muscle or body aches, chills, fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache and fatigue.

Dr. Ramzi Yacoub, SingleCare's Chief Pharmacy Officer, recently told Bustle that one important distinction is that the flu typically does not cause shortness of breath unless it has progressed to pneumonia, but shortness of breath is a common symptom of coronavirus. A person shouldn't expect seeing these symptoms for either virus immediately after catching it.

Incubation and Timeframe

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Experts at the University of California at San Francisco states that once an individual becomes infected with the coronavirus, the incubation stage (period of time before a person shows any symptoms) lasts about five days on average. As for the flu, Harvard Health states symptoms tend to appear one to four days after a person has been infected with symptoms lasting, on average, from five to seven days.

WHO expert, Jamie Metzl, recommends anyone with flu-like symptoms be tested even though it's likely the person simply has a cold or flu.


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Early reports revealed that COVID-19 is deadlier and more contagious than the flu. Scientists also believe this new virus spreads the same way as the flu (sharing of germs on surfaces, passage of respiratory droplets or close contact between people).

Like the flu, they also believe the coronavirus obtains peak effectiveness immediately after symptoms start to appear, which is a few days after the person is infected. It's suggested that once a person starts to feel ill, then go ahead and take off from work, rather than waiting a few days to see if you'll feel better.

Mortality Rate Difference

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According to the CDC, the average death rate for the flu is around 0.1%, meaning for every 1,000 people who get the flu, one person on average dies from it. A March 3rd report from the World Health Organization (WHO) placed the COVID-19 death rate 3.4%. Earlier estimates had placed it between 1.4 and 2%.

Dr. Metzl explained, "As our testing capacity improves, I am guessing we will find that this coronavirus has spread significantly more widely than currently understood. This is bad news, but the upside, if there is one, is that this will bring down the death rate."

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