Why Do So Many People Compare COVID-19 to the Flu?

December 1, 2023
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It is not uncommon for people to mistake COVID-19, the illness behind the pandemic, for influenza (flu) or vice versa. It is a comparison that is not accurate but understandable. There are similarities between these two respiratory infections. There are differences, as well. 

Both of these illnesses have a significant impact on world health. According to the World Health Association (WHO), as of November 2023, there have been close to 7 million deaths from COVID-19. WHO also states that although there are around one billion cases of influenza annually, there are between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths

Although COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms, the flu has been around longer, so better treatment options exist. What else can you learn from a coronavirus and influenza comparison? 

 What is COVID-19?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that COVID-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019, is a viral infection caused by SARS-CoV-2. This virus attacks the lungs and the whole respiratory system, which includes your nose, mouth, throat, windpipe, and diaphragm. 

COVID-19 spreads when someone with the infection breathes out droplets that contain the virus. Other people get the infection when they inhale these droplets or the particles that land on their bodies. For example, if they have droplets on their hands, they might rub their eyes and get the infection that way. They can also get it if they touch a surface with the droplets on it. 

What is Influenza? 

Influenza is also a viral infection affecting the respiratory system, usually just the upper portion. That would include the nose and throat. Occasionally, the virus might infect the lungs, as well. There are four types of influenza viruses that can make you sick, labeled A, B, C, and D. 

The transmission is the same with influenza as it is with COVID. Someone with the infection breathes or coughs out droplets of the virus. You can breathe in the virus or pick it up from a surface or by touching an infected individual’s hands. 

COVID-19 vs. Flu

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There are some apparent similarities between these two illnesses, such as:

Other similarities include:

The similarity in symptoms is one reason people confuse the two illnesses. There are differences worth noting, as well, though. 

COVID-19 and Flu Differences

The differences between these two illnesses are less obvious yet significant. 


The primary difference between these two is the cause. COVID-19 is a viral infection of SARS-CoV2. The flu is an infection of one or more influenza virus strains. 


The symptoms of COVID and the flu are almost the same with one exception. People with COVID-19 often report loss of taste and smell. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is not generally reported with the flu. 

Transmission Rates

Although the transmission of the virus is similar, the rate of that transmission is different between COVID-19 and influenza. Generally speaking, the incubation rate for flu is around two days. Incubation rate refers to how long you carry the virus without showing symptoms. 

For COVID-19, the incubation rate is anywhere from 1-14 days. The extended incubation rate allows the virus to infect more people. One study out of China estimated that one person with COVID-19 will infect two or three others. That is twice as high as the flu. 


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Some potential complications from the flu and COVID-19 are also similar, such as pneumonia. However, you are more likely to experience them with COVID, which is why it is so deadly. 

People with COVID can also have:

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It is possible you may have one or more of these complications with the flu, but not nearly as likely. COVID tends to be the more severe illness with more extended hospital stays and increased mortality rates.  


The public’s perception of COVID-19 differs from that of the flu. There was considerable misinformation during the pandemic, and COVID-19 myths spread, primarily through social media.

The media also significantly shaped the vulnerabilities people faced and their experiences during the pandemic. The information coming from various media sources wasn’t always the same. That might have led to confusion and, in some cases, either panic or dismissal of the illness. 

You don’t see the same daily coverage of the seasonal flu outbreaks. There can be more positive stories about vaccinations for the flu, too. COVID-19 vaccination remains controversial. 

If you become sick with COVID-19 or the flu, remember that you can spread the infection to others. The Mayo Clinic suggests isolating yourself until you are fever-free for at least 24 hours, whether you know which disease you have or not. 

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