How Coronavirus Is Different From The Flu, According To A Doctor

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This post is updated regularly to reflect the latest news and science around coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

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 at least 121 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.

The coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, the capital of China's Hubei province in December 2019. After the number of COVID-19 cases surpassed 118,000, the World Health Organization announced that it expects to see mortality and infection rates continue to rise. On March 11, it officially announced that coronavirus had become a pandemic. "WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction," the WHO director-general said in his opening remarks that day. So far, over 130,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported, as well as over 4,900 deaths.

How To Know If You Have Coronavirus Or Flu Symptoms

Coronavirus symptoms: The most common symptoms of the coronavirus are fever, cough, and shortness of breath, the CDC says. If you think these sound similar to flu symptoms, you're not wrong. "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.

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, though it can be anywhere from 2 to 11 days. All people respond to viruses differently, but generally, people with coronavirus tend to become ill by day seven, if they're going to show symptoms at all. Per the university, most otherwise healthy people start to recover 11 days after exposure.

Flu symptoms: Meanwhile symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, muscle or body aches, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache, and fatigue. They 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. According to the CDC, a person's chances of getting the flu can decrease by 40-60% after they get a flu vaccine.

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 which virus you might have without being tested.

How Contagious Is Coronavirus Vs. The Flu?

Coronavirus contagiousness: 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 begin to appear. 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.

Flu contagiousness: A common way to talk about contagiousness of diseases is through R naught, a mathematical model used to estimate how many people will be infected by one sick person. Based off of this model, the flu is about half as contagious as coronavirus, based on early estimates.

According to data pulled together by Vox, the average person with the flu will infect 1.3 other people with the virus. In contrast, the average person with coronavirus will infect 2-3.1 other people.

Is Coronavirus Deadlier Than The Flu?

Flu mortality rate: 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.

According to early estimates by the CDC, there have been between between 36-51 million flu illnesses, and 22,000-55,000 flu deaths, between Oct. 1, 2019, and March 7, 2020 in the United States. These estimates are calculated from the CDC's weekly influenza surveillance data, and are only preliminary.

Coronavirus mortality rate: 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. The WHO provided further explanation and context behind the current estimated 3.4% coronavirus mortality rate in a briefing released on March 6:

While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 3-4%, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually well below 0.1%. However, mortality is to a large extent determined by access to and quality of health care.

As the WHO noted above, it's important to take the death rate seriously, but also with a grain of salt.

"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."

So far, there have been at least 1,264 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 36 deaths, in the United States, according to a daily update by the WHO.

How Does Coronavirus Vs. Flu Treatment Compare?

Coronavirus treatment: While flu vaccinations are made widely available every year, there is no vaccine for the coronavirus yet. Countries around the world are working to create a vaccine as quickly as possible. But 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, NPR reports, because of all of the tests and studies that would have to be done. Per The Guardian, getting a vaccine within a year of the coronavirus outbreak would represent a "quick" turnaround.

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." Quarantine times for people with COVID-19 vary depending on how long a person is sick for, but for reference, the CDC and U.S. government request that all people returning from heavily-impacted countries self-quarantine themselves for approximately 14 days.

Flu treatment: In addition to getting the flu vaccine, there are plenty of antiviral medications people can take for the flu (like Tamiflu or Rapivab), 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. Additionally, people who have the flu usually need "nothing more than bed rest and plenty of fluids," the Mayo Clinic reports.

Who's Most At Risk Of Getting The Flu Or Coronavirus?

People at high risk of getting "very sick" from coronavirus: According to Harvard Health, people at high risk include the elderly, immunocompromised people, and those with underlying medical problems like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart failure, or diabetes.

People at high risk of getting "very sick" from the flu: Per the CDC, the people who are at the highest risk include adults 65 years and up, children under two years of age, immunocompromised people, and pregnant people, as well as anyone with lung disease, heart disease, or asthma.

It's not surprising that there's more specific information regarding who is at high risk for the flu, than the coronavirus. The flu, in general, is more understood than the coronavirus, as of March 2020.

Can The Flu Shot Protect You From Coronavirus?

The flu shot cannot prevent you from getting coronavirus, according to the University of Chicago School of Medicine, but it might be able to help in other ways. Dr. Albert Ko, a professor and department chair at the Yale School of Public Health, told Live Science that flu vaccines provide an "indirect" effect on the coronavirus outbreak by reducing the number of flu cases in hospitals. This helps "relieve pressures" in medical centers that are also treating people for coronavirus.

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.

Experts Referenced:

Jamie Metzl, WHO Expert on Human Genome Editing, Author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity

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