One of the most important questions your patients may have is about the difference between COVID-19 and the standard seasonal flu strains
There is absolutely no question that COVID-19 is certainly your patients’ biggest health concern in 2020 and perhaps beyond. Whether it is proper social distancing, disinfecting techniques or constructing homemade masks, you should be prepared for a wide range of questions from your patients during this crucial lockdown period, in which we are all trying to “flatten the curve.”
One of the most important questions your patients may have is about the difference between COVID-19 and the standard seasonal flu strains. This can be confusing, as there are some strong similarities, and some news outlets downplayed the seriousness of the virus in its early stages in the U.S. However, there are important differences. Let’s look a little further into how these two types of respiratory illnesses are alike, as well as how they are dissimilar.
Running the numbers
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), as of April 18 there were 690,714 cases and 35,443 deaths, stemming from 55 locations (50 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands).1
In comparison, the CDC in their 2017-2018 report cited approximately 61,000 deaths from the flu [CORRECTED DATA].
Interestingly, the length of the 2018-2019 flu season (November 2019 to February 2019) and the time from the first reported domestic cases of COVID-19 in January 2020 until now (April 2020) are almost identical. This comparison seems to indicate that COVID-19 is much more lethal than the flu over approximately the same time span.
Period of contagiousness
While much is still unknown about the period of contagiousness for COVID-19, observational data appears to show that people are contagious when they are actively showing symptoms, and possibly during the days leading to an outbreak when they have the virus but with no symptoms.3
Somebody with a common flu strain can also spread the disease one to two days prior to the onset of symptoms, as well as five to seven days after symptom onset.4
Symptoms: COVID-19 vs. flu strains
Because both COVID-19 and flu strains are viral respiratory diseases, they have a number of symptoms in common.5 These symptoms include:
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
In terms of symptoms, the one distinctive difference between COVID-19 and the flu is that some patients with COVID-19 will experience a loss of taste.1,5 In fact, there is some speculation that this symptom may be a strong initial indicator that a patient has been infected with COVID-19, rather than the flu.
Who is most at risk for serious illness?
Those at risk for developing more serious forms of COVID-19 or the flu are also similar, but there are also some distinct differences.
For example, both children and pregnant women are considered to be at higher risk than the general population for becoming seriously ill with the flu, while patients with diabetes or cardiovascular conditions are at greater risk for developing COVID-19.5
The main takeaway for your patients is that the herd immunity upon which we rely to protect us against diseases has yet to develop in response to COVID-19 because it is a new type of virus, unlike common flu strains.1,2 As one media outlet reported, COVID-19 has killed more people in one month than the flu killed in an entire year.
The best way your patients can protect themselves is to practice social distancing, wash their hands thoroughly, and wear masks whenever they are out in public until social-distancing measures are removed.
- Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Accessed 4/18/2020.
- Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2018–2019 Influenza Season. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Accessed 4/18/2020.
- Clinical Questions about COVID-19: Questions and Answers. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Accessed 4/18/2020.
- Key Facts about Influenza (Flu). National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Accessed 4/18/2020.
- Comparing COVID and Influenza. MedExpert. Updated 3/11/2024. Accessed 4/18/2020.