Icon Based on Science BASED ON SCIENCE
Home Acknowledgments

COVID-19 is different from the flu

CLAIM: COVID-19 is not like the flu.

CORRECT. COVID-19 and the flu are both infectious viral diseases that have many symptoms in common. But there are important differences, including how much we know about each one and the options available for treating these diseases. Despite their differences, the actions you can take to avoid getting them are the same.


COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms.

COVID-19 and the flu are both respiratory diseases, meaning that they infect the lungs. COVID-19 is caused by a newly discovered type of coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2. The flu is caused by influenza viruses.

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also identified that people with COVID-19 may experience tiredness, headaches, sore throat, joint and muscle pain, and chills. These symptoms are also common with the flu. So far, evidence suggests that COVID-19 symptoms come on gradually, whereas flu symptoms typically come on quickly.


COVID-19 may spread more easily than the flu.

We are still learning how contagious COVID-19 is, but there is research to suggest that someone with COVID-19 will give the disease to more people than someone who is sick with the seasonal flu. An analysis of COVID-19’s spread in China concluded that one infected person, on average, infects 2–3 more people. Studies of the seasonal flu find that someone who is sick only infects an additional 1.27 people on average.

Also, influenza is always active somewhere in the world. Even though the flu virus changes over time, continual exposure means that at least some people have some resistance to the flu, either because they’ve had a similar strain of the flu before or they’ve had a flu vaccine that gives them some protection against the latest strain. (Still, because the flu virus changes, it is important to get a flu vaccine every year.)

COVID-19 is an entirely new disease. This means that no one has immunity to the disease. Since none of us have resistance to COVID-19, it is easy for the virus to spread.


We know a lot about the risk of dying from the flu, but we have very little information about the risk of dying from COVID-19.

Because the flu happens every year, we have collected data for a long time. In the U.S., we can accurately estimate how many people get sick from the flu each year and, of those, how many will probably die. The U.S. case fatality rate for the seasonal flu—that is, the percentage of people who die out of all the people who get the flu in a given year—is 0.1%. That means that about 1 out of every 1,000 people who gets the flu dies.

Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, we are still learning about how deadly it may be. One analysis that looked at COVID-19 cases concluded that the case fatality rate ranges from .25% to 3%. That is the same as saying that between 2.5 and 30 people will die from COVID-19 out of every 1,000 people who are known to have the disease.

This suggests that COVID-19 is more deadly than the seasonal flu, but it is very early and we don’t yet know enough about all of the people who have been infected. We only know the number of people with confirmed cases. Changes in the number of people who are confirmed to have COVID-19 and the number of people who die from it will change the case fatality rate.


There are medicines to treat the flu and a vaccine to prevent it. We have neither for COVID-19.

We have defenses against the flu that we do not have for COVID-19.

  • There is a vaccine for the flu. Getting a flu vaccine makes it less likely that you will get the flu or spread it to others. Even if you do get the flu, the vaccine can make your illness less severe.
  • There are drugs to treat the flu. There are antiviral drugs that can lessen the symptoms of flu, reduce the time that you are sick by a couple of days, and prevent complications, like pneumonia. They can also be taken to prevent the flu if you have been exposed.

We have neither of these tools for COVID-19 right now. The antiviral drugs that work on influenza viruses do not work on the novel coronavirus. Drugs and vaccines are being studied for COVID-19, but it will take several months or years to develop and test these treatments to find out if they are effective.


For all respiratory illness, the best course of action to avoid getting sick is to wash your hands, practice physical distancing, and take other precautions.

We know that COVID-19 and the flu are both spread by:

  • Droplets expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • Person-to-person-contact
  • Touching a surface that has been contaminated with viruses and then touching your face, where the virus can enter the mucous membrane in your eyes, nose, and mouth

Therefore, the best ways to prevent getting or spreading COVID-19 and the flu are the same:

  • Wash your hands. Soap dissolves viruses. Scrubbing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and then rinsing well is the best way to get a virus off your hands. Use hand sanitizer if you are not near a sink.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, especially if your hands aren’t clean or you have touched a surface that isn’t clean.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily.
  • Stay home if you are sick. Even if you are not sick, it’s best to stay at home as much as possible when a virus is spreading widely. This reduces your chances of catching and spreading the disease.
Published on: April 21, 2020