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Is It COVID-19 or the Seasonal Flu?

Is It COVID-19 or the Seasonal Flu?

You may have heard that COVID-19 is similar to the seasonal flu. Both are contagious respiratory diseases caused by viruses and with shared common symptoms. But while there are many similarities, there are many differences. The CDC estimates between 12,000 to 61,000 individuals die from influenza in the US each year, compared with 266,051 deaths from COVID-19 recorded thus far in 2020.

Common symptoms shared by COVID-19 and influenza:

• Fever and/or chills
• Cough
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• Fatigue
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Muscle pain or body aches
• Headache
• Vomiting and diarrhea (though this is more common in children than adults)
With COVID-19, many people also experience loss of taste and smell.

Spread & Treatment

Both influenza and COVID-19 are spread by respiratory droplets and close contact. Because symptoms are similar, it may be difficult to differentiate based on symptoms alone; thus, testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis. Also with both, it is possible to spread the virus for at least one day without having experienced any symptoms. In addition, one can test positive for the flu, other respiratory illnesses, and COVID-19 all at the same time.

Influenza in individuals who are young and healthy is usually self-limiting, meaning it will resolve itself with supportive care. However, high-risk people may develop serious complications from the flu – most notably pneumonia – which can lead to respiratory failure and death.

On the other hand, COVID-19 is far more contagious, can cause far more serious illness, and is far more deadly than the flu. Certain risk factors such as age and underlying conditions also place those individuals at higher risk for complications and/or death. Given that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are required to be reported while flu deaths are not, any comparison relies on estimates. Influenza numbers in the U.S. below are based on data the CDC collects on behavioral risk factors, in-hospital deaths, and death certificates from state and county health departments, compared with COVID-19 pandemic statistics which are updated daily.


The influenza virus is constantly mutating and is highly changeable from year to year. So, too, are flu vaccines, based on research and the strain of flu for a given year. But while large-scale flu vaccination has been available in the United States since 1945, a flu vaccine would have zero effect on COVID-19.

In contrast, there is currently no authorized COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, but that is about to quickly change. Clinical trials began back in March of this year with various biopharmaceutical companies who were able to quickly develop trial vaccines, in part due to prior studies of related coronaviruses that also cause acute respiratory syndrome. Both Pfizer and Moderna have completed trials with successful results and are ready to move forward with production. As of yesterday, 11/30/20, both companies have submitted their request to the FDA for emergency use authorization after final analysis confirmed their safety with a 94.5% and a 94.1% efficacy rating, respectively, for COVID prevention. Upon approval, distribution of the first doses should begin very shortly thereafter. COVID-19 vaccines will be rolled out in phases, with healthcare workers receiving the first inoculations, followed by the elderly and those with underlying conditions, essential workers and teachers, homeless and prisoners, then children and young adults.

Girl wearing a mask in a supermarket

How can you avoid getting COVID-19 and the flu?

Meanwhile, the best way to prevent illness from COVID-19, influenza, or other respiratory infection is to avoid being exposed to the viruses that cause them.

Altru’s collaborators in care at the Mayo Clinic encourage the following precautions and safety measures to stay healthy.

• Avoiding large events and mass gatherings.
• Avoiding close contact (within six feet) with anyone outside your household, especially if you have a higher risk of serious illness.
• Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
• Wearing a cloth face mask when you’re in public spaces, such as the grocery store, where it’s difficult to avoid close contact with others.
• Covering your mouth and nose with your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
• Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
• Cleaning and disinfecting high-touch objects and surfaces daily.

Dr. Joshua Deere, Altru’s Medical Director of Primary Care, shared the following: “The most important take-home for influenza education is to get vaccinated. This year with a potential combination of COVID and influenza, outbreaks could be challenging. The early data is reassuring as we are seeing limited to no influenza spread currently in the US. Please continue to mask, social distance, and wash hands often to prevent the spread. COVID is more infectious than influenza so we are hopeful for a lighter influenza season this winter.”

For more information and the latest updates on COVID-19 please visit

Please note, due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, guidelines and recommendations included in this blog may change over time and could vary from the original date of publication. For the latest news and updates related to COVID-19, please visit

Some of the content of this blog is courtesy of Mayo Clinic, the No. 1 hospital in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report. Altru Health System is a member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network. This relationship provides us with access to information, knowledge, and expertise from Mayo Clinic.

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