Coronavirus or the Flu

UPMC is prepared to care for patients and staff who may be affected by COVID-19. Learn more. 

The novel coronavirus Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is drawing comparisons to influenza, the seasonal flu.

Reports of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, the disease it causes, began in China in late December 2019, in the middle of flu season.

COVID-19 and the flu cause similar respiratory symptoms, but the two have many differences.

Which Causes More Cases: Coronavirus or the Flu?

Between late December 2019 and April 2020, the World Health Organization reported millions of cases of the coronavirus. COVID-19 had spread to nearly 200 countries.

The flu, meanwhile, is much more common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the flu causes between 9 million and 45 million illnesses each year in the U.S.

Which Is Deadlier: Coronavirus or the Flu?

The WHO reported hundreds of thousands of global deaths from COVID-19 between late December 2019 and April 2020.

The CDC estimates the flu causes between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths each year in the United States. The WHO reports between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide die each year because of severe flu-related respiratory problems.

Although the flu causes more deaths, COVID-19 appears to be deadlier. COVID-19’s death rate is changing, but it remains higher than the flu, which has a yearly fatality rate of around 0.1 percent.

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Which Is More Contagious: Coronavirus or the Flu?

Both the flu and COVID-19 can spread from person to person with close contact. If an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, they release droplets that can land in an uninfected person’s nose or mouth.

The flu also can spread if uninfected people touch a surface that contains the virus and then touch their nose, mouth, or eyes. COVID-19 can spread in a similar way.

Who Is Most at Risk of Infection?

People who travel, work, or live in places where COVID-19 is spreading are at the highest risk of getting infected. Other risk factors include older age and health conditions like lung conditions or disease, heart disease, diabetes, HIV, or cancer. Pregnant women should also be monitored, although currently there is no data that says they are at greater risk for infection or severe illness.

The prevalence of the flu means anyone can get infected. Many of the same groups are at higher risk.

Coronavirus and Flu Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms for both COVID-19 and the flu can range from mild to severe and even life-threatening.

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Symptoms generally appear anywhere between two and 14 days after exposure to SARS-CoV-2, though scientists and public health authorities are still gathering data to refine this range.

Flu symptoms come on suddenly, usually between one and four days after exposure. The flu can cause many different symptoms, including:

Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause serious health complications, such as pneumonia.

Only lab tests can definitively diagnose COVID-19. Several different tests can diagnose the flu, and those tests are more widely available.


Treatment: Coronavirus vs. Flu

If you have the flu, prescription antiviral medications, if taken early, can help treat your illness. They can help ease your symptoms, shorten your illness, and lessen your risk for complications.

No specific medicine currently exists for COVID-19, though several clinical trials are underway. Currently, treatment is focused around supportive care and oxygen supplementation when needed.

Can I Prevent Coronavirus or the Flu?

The CDC recommends any American older than 6 months get an annual flu shot, which can help prevent you from getting infected with the flu. There is no vaccination available yet for COVID-19.

You can take some steps to help prevent getting infected by the flu or COVID-19 and to prevent their spread:

  • Avoid contact with people who are infected.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Wash for at least 20 seconds. This is most important after coughing and sneezing, using the bathroom, and before eating.
  • Avoid touching your nose, eyes, or mouth.
  • Disinfect commonly touched surfaces, such as tables and counters, at work, home, and school.
  • Wash your hands after touching commonly used surfaces.

Follow the CDC’s recommendations for wearing facemasks. The CDC recommends wearing homemade cloth face coverings when out in public to prevent spread of the coronavirus. You should not purchase masks or respirators that are meant for health care workers.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.; H. Clifford Lane, M.D.; Robert R. Redfield, M.D. Seasonal Influenza (Flu) . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. We have specialty units for prevention and treatment of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, and illnesses caused by international travel. Our faculty research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods.