Written by: Michelle Fedorowicz, medical student
If you are like me, then about two weeks ago you were thinking, “Hmmm, coronavirus infection can cause fever, cough, and shortness of breath… sounds kind of like the flu, no? Then what’s the big deal?” Well, it is actually a VERY big deal and there are some big differences between coronavirus (COVID-19) and the flu. This article will explain how the two viruses are both alike and different.
Coronavirus and the flu share common symptoms. Both can cause fever, cough, muscle aches, fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea. They both have a range of symptoms from a few to many that can become very severe. Both viruses can infect anyone, including young, old, healthy or not so healthy people and both viruses are known to cause pneumonia. While anyone can become ill, it is believed that for both the flu and coronavirus, severe symptoms are more likely to happen in someone over the age of 65 or with other medical conditions (like diabetes, asthma or heart disease).
The coronavirus and influenza are both viruses, although different types, which means that treatment is mainly for reducing symptoms. We have medications available for the flu that will help decrease how long symptoms last and their severity. No such medication exists for coronavirus (COVID-19) at this time. We know that antibiotics are not effective in preventing or treating either the flu or coronavirus. However, you can develop a bacterial infection on top of either the flu or coronavirus, which might be treated by antibiotics.
Spread of disease
Both coronavirus and the flu spread from person to person, mainly through droplets. This means an infected person coughs or sneezes and a non-infected person will catch one of these droplets and then touch their nose, mouth, or eyes. Unlike the flu, however, scientists have found that coronavirus (COVID-19) can exist in the air for up to 3 hours and on other surfaces, like stainless steel, for up to 2-3 days.
One very big difference between the flu and coronavirus is that we have a vaccine for the flu (influenza virus). Though not everyone gets the flu vaccine every year, we believe that enough people receive the vaccine to create something called “herd immunity.” Herd immunity happens when enough people in a population become immune to a disease so that the spread of the disease slows down. In other words, though you yourself might not have been vaccinated, if other people around you are, you’re less likely to get sick. On top of that, people who become infected with the flu after having received a vaccine are less likely to develop severe symptoms.
There is no vaccine currently available for COVID-19, but scientists around the world are working to create one at this time. This means that without a vaccine, the only way to keep the disease from spreading is through social distancing. Not only is this important for you, but it protects more vulnerable populations like the elderly from getting sick.
It is nearly impossible to say how fatal the new coronavirus really is for many reasons. For one, we aren’t testing enough people because of a lack of supplies. This means that likely many more people could have coronavirus than we know, which would decrease the number of deaths because doctors typically test patients with serious symptoms. Additionally, the disease is so new that we can’t say with certainty how fatal it is.
In Wuhan, China, where the disease originated, we’re finding that the fatality rate now is somewhere around 1.4%. This is still considerably higher than the flu’s fatality rate of about 0.1%, but we have better estimates than first believed. We expect the numbers to improve as more people are tested.
So you’re probably thinking, “What does this all mean to me?” Given how similar the two diseases are, it’s important to know what to do if you feel sick. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, please call your healthcare provider or a coronavirus hotline (like the Beaumont Health hotline #800-592-4784) to discuss your symptoms. They can tell you where to go to get tested or if you can stay at home while you get better. Most importantly, whether you have coronavirus, the flu or feel perfectly healthy, right now you should stay home until health professionals say we can stop social distancing.