Flu or Coronavirus? Here's How to Tell the Difference

With the coronavirus hitting the U.S. at peak flu season, it’s no wonder some confusion has ensued.

by Ayren Jackson-Cannady Senior Editor

Now that the coronavirus (aka COVID-19) has made its presence known in more than 190 countries around the world (including at least over 35,000 cases to date in the United States), you may be more concerned about that tickle in your throat than ever before. Is it the start of a run-of-the-mill cold or flu? Or could it be the novel coronavirus, which scientists are still learning about daily (er, hourly)? Before you freak out (‘cause that’s the last thing you should do), keep reading. Here are the key differences between the two viral infections that you should know about.

Symptoms

The flu is typically accompanied with symptoms such as:

  • Cough

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

  • Muscle aches

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Fatigue

  • Fever that comes on suddenly (like a ton of bricks…ugh)

COVID-19 symptoms are slightly different. “Since the coronavirus is so new, researchers are still trying to accumulate comprehensive and accurate data about its symptoms,” says Niket Sonpal, M.D., an internist at the Touro College of Medicine in New York City.

However, the most common symptoms of coronavirus seem to be:

  • Fever

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath

And, a small percentage of people with coronavirus, which experts are dubbing the distant cousin of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, have reported sore throat, runny nose, vomiting or diarrhea.

For those with weakened immune systems—like great-grandparents and newborn babies—or an underlying health condition, there’s a possibility that both viruses could cause a serious respiratory tract illness like pneumonia or bronchitis. According to CDC, recent observations among cases in the US suggest that up to one-fifth of infected people ages 20-44 have been hospitalized, including 2%-4% who required treatment in an intensive care unit. Still, the most severe cases, and the highest rates of death, are among the elderly.

Duration

If you’ve ever had the flu, you probably got to a point when you thought the symptoms would never end. Like, will I be like this f-o-r-e-v-e-r? But according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), influenza symptoms typically last about two weeks. Nevertheless, some people experience lingering fatigue after all other symptoms have subsided and it can take another several weeks to feel 100% like yourself.

“The CDC believes that symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days after exposure,” says Dr. Sonpal. Translation: A person can go days—weeks, even—without realizing they’re ill. And that’s just one of the many reasons the coronavirus continues to baffle researchers.

Prevention

Since the 1940s, doctors have been using vaccines to help prevent some strains of the flu from spreading. Currently, there is no vaccine for the coronavirus. But health officials from various countries are suggesting expediting approval of a vaccine—what usually takes up to five years to create, may be ready within 18 months. Still, “it is hard to say currently when a vaccine will be ready,” says Dr. Sonpal. “Companies have also started work on testing previous research for similar viruses such as SARS in an attempt to find something that will work on the novel coronavirus.”

For now, the most important thing people can do to prevent this disease and to keep themselves healthy is to wash their hands with soap and water…often. “Clean your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing,” says Dr. Sonpal. Cover your mouth when coughing— with your sleeve, using your elbow—and try to keep your hands away from your face. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects—doorknobs, cell phones, computer keys—and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

Interestingly, a recent study conducted at Umeå University in Sweden found that since the cruise ship Diamond Princess was quarantined for over two weeks, it resulted in more coronavirus infected passengers than if everyone got off the ship immediately. "The infection rate onboard the vessel was about four times higher than what can be seen on land in the worst infected areas of China [where the virus originated],” says Joacim Rocklöv, professor of epidemiology at Umeå University and principal author of the article. “A probable cause is how close people stay to one another onboard a vessel."

The takeaway: To help prevent the spread of coronavirus, steer clear of others if you feel sick. The World Health Organization suggests staying at least three feet away from anyone who may be infected.

Treatment

There are currently no specific medicines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat the coronavirus. As a rule of thumb, hydrate yourself with water or Gatorade, get rest, take over the counter medications for sore throat and fever symptoms. For severe cases of coronavirus, treatment would include hospital care to help keep vital organ functions, like the lungs, in check.

Treatment of the flu also includes bed rest, hydrating, OTC medications for sore throat and fever, and trying to eat well. With the flu, if you suspect you have it, there is a medication called Tamiflu. “This medication may also be used to prevent the flu if you have been exposed to someone who already has the flu (such as a sick household member) or if there is a flu outbreak in the community,” says Dr. Sonpal. “This medication isn’t a substitute for the flu vaccine, but it does work by stopping the flu virus from growing.”

  • Coronavirus At-Home Guidance: Centers for Disease Control. (2019). “Interim Guidance for Public Health Personnel Evaluating Persons Under Investigation (PUIs) and Asymptomatic Close Contacts of Confirmed Cases at Their Home.” cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/guidance-evaluating-pui.html

  • Cruise Ship Coronavirus Quarantine: Umea University. (2020). “Quarantine on cruise ship resulted in more Corona patients.”

Ayren Jackson-Cannady
Meet Our Writer
Ayren Jackson-Cannady

Ayren is a senior editor at HealthCentral. She works across categories, specializing in skin health, and oversees several newsletters. Before joining the team, Ayren covered skin and hair health as a beauty editor for several national publications, including Fitness, Suede/Essence, TimeOut NY, and Lucky, and she was the Washington, D.C. editor of the parenting site, RedTri.com. She has written for The New York Times, Health, Allure, WebMD, Self, Real Simple, and more.