So you’ve got a runny nose, slight fever, and you’re coughing. If it was November 2019, you’d probably brush it off, but with coronavirus spreading in over 70 countries, you might rethink any mild symptoms you’re experiencing. So, what’s the difference between the flu and coronavirus? Although the symptoms are similar, there are a few key distinctions to remember.
What Do The Symptoms Look Like?
The most common symptoms of the coronavirus are fever, cough, and shortness of breath, according to the CDC, while symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, muscle or body aches, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache, and fatigue. "One important distinction is that while the flu typically does not cause shortness of breath unless it has progressed to pneumonia, shortness of breath is a common symptom of coronavirus," Dr. Ramzi Yacoub, Pharm. D., SingleCare’s Chief Pharmacy Officer, tells Bustle.
You shouldn’t expect to see these symptoms for either virus immediately after catching it, though. According to the University of California at San Francisco, once a person becomes infected with coronavirus, the incubation phase (i.e. the period of time before you start showing symptoms) is about five days on average. Of course, all people respond to viruses differently, but generally, people with coronavirus tend to become critically ill by day seven. Per the university, most otherwise healthy people start to recover after day 11.
As for the flu, symptoms tend to appear between one and four days after a person has been infected, according to Harvard Health. Symptoms will last, on average, from five to seven days, though that can depend greatly on whether or not a person has gotten a flu shot. Of course, since you’re likely not aware of when a virus infects you, the slight differences between these incubation phases could be impossible to detect. That’s why it’s a good idea to see a doctor, since you can’t confirm you have the coronavirus without being tested.
"Anyone with flu-like symptoms should certainly be tested, even though it is still far more likely that those people will have a cold or flu rather than this coronavirus," Jamie Metzl, a WHO expert on genome editing, tells Bustle.
How Contagious Are They?
Early reports show that the coronavirus is both deadlier and more contagious than the flu. Scientists believe that the coronavirus spreads the same way that the flu does (through the passage of respiratory droplets, close contact between people, or the sharing of germs on surfaces).
They also believe that the coronavirus, like the flu, reaches peak infectiveness right after symptoms start to appear, a few days after the person gets infected. So if you’re starting to feel really crummy, that’s when you want to take some time off of work, rather than waiting several days.
How Do The Mortality Rates Differ?
The average death rate for the flu, year after year, is around 0.1%, according to the CDC. That means that for every 1,000 people who get the flu, 1 person on average dies from it. On the other hand, a March 3 report by the WHO placed the coronavirus death rate at 3.4%. Earlier estimates had placed it between 1.4 and 2%, The New York Times reports. With that said, experts have noted that it’s fully possible the context around these numbers, and the numbers themselves, could easily change.
"As our testing capacity improves, I am guessing we will find that this coronavirus has spread significantly more widely than currently understood," Metzl says. "This is bad news, but the upside, if there is one, is that this will bring down the death rate."
How Does Treatment Compare?
There are many more unknowns with the coronavirus than there are with the flu, which is reflected in particular when you consider the imbalance in treatment options. For example, flu vaccinations are made widely available every year, and there is no vaccine for the coronavirus yet.
Countries around the world are working to create a vaccine as quickly as possible. However, even if scientists were to find an effective vaccination against the coronavirus this week, it likely wouldn’t be available to the public until next fall, because of all of the tests and studies that need to be done on vaccines before they’re available to the general public. Per The Guardian, getting a vaccine within a year of the coronavirus outbreak would represent a "quick" turnaround.
It’s not just about vaccines, though. There are also plenty of antiviral medications people can take for the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic, all of which can shorten the lifespan of the illness and prevent complications. Because the coronavirus is new, it’s not clear which medications, if any, work on it in the same way.
For now, the CDC recommends that people with coronavirus receive "supportive care to help relieve symptoms" from hospitals and medical workers. In the most severe cases, this includes "care to support vital organ functions." They also are supposed to be quarantined for several days, to prevent the spread of the virus. In contrast, people who have the flu usually need "nothing more than bed rest and plenty of fluids," the Mayo Clinic reports.
If you want to learn more about how you can best keep yourself safe from coronavirus as well as the flu, you can stay up to date with the CDC’s recommendations.
Ramzi Yacoub, Pharm. D., SingleCare’s Chief Pharmacy Officer
Jamie Metzl, WHO Expert on Human Genome Editing, Author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity
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