Experts Weigh In On the Difference Between COVID-19 and the Flu

Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when many people weren’t concerned about COVID-19 and were comparing it to the flu? It’s easy to make the comparison since the symptoms of both overlap so much, but we now know that they are anything but the same.

As businesses shut down, schools closed and face mask wearing became the norm, we quickly realized that COVID-19 was quite a bit more serious than the flu, especially since it’s new and none of us have built up any immunity.

Now that flu season is upon us, experts warn of a twindemic meaning that we’ll be battling both COVID-19 and the flu.

It might be easy to think that the flu isn’t that big of a deal since it’s so common that we actually call the fall and winter “flu season.” Then, when you add how much we’ve downplayed the flu in comparison to COVID-19, you might think that COVID-19 is obviously worse.

Is COVID-19 that much worse than the flu? Is the flu a big deal?

The answer to both of these questions is “yes.”

William Schaffner, M.D. is the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and he is also a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. You could definitely say he knows a thing or two about COVID-19 and the flu. He told Prevention, “They’re both terrible, so trying to distinguish between the two is like trying to choose between one bad actor and a worse one. But if I had to say which one is worse, I’d have to say COVID-19.”

Why is COVID-19 worse? For starters, we don’t know as much about it as the flu. We also don’t have a vaccine, and while anti-viral drugs can be used to treat the flu, so far no anti-viral drugs have been effective at treating COVID-19. So far in the United States there have been about 200,000 deaths caused by COVID-19 while the flu causes anywhere from 12,000 to 61,000 deaths each year.

Just because COVID-19 sounds worse than the flu, it doesn’t mean that you would want to catch the flu. After all, it can cause serious complications like heart problems, lung damage and pneumonia. Experts stress that it’s extra important to get a flu shot this year to prevent getting sick and to prevent getting anyone else sick. 

The flu and COVID-19 spread in similar ways, so you can protect yourself from both by doing everything you’ve been doing to prevent getting and spreading COVID-19, things like washing your hands, wearing a face mask and staying 6-feet away from people who are not in your household. It’s also a good idea to avoid touching your face and to disinfect surfaces. 

If you start feeling sick and you’re not sure if you have COVID-19 or the flu, one symptom that doesn’t overlap is loss of sense of taste and smell which is fairly common with COVID-19. Another clue as to which virus you have is how long it has been since you were around someone who is contagious. Usually, you would develop the flu 1 to 4 days after being exposed to it, but people can start having symptoms of COVID-19 anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks after being exposed to it. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or the flu, be sure to stay home and to contact your doctor.