Coronavirus vs. Influenza: Symptoms, Treatments, and Vaccines

By Arielle Mitton
Medically reviewed
October 14, 2021

Though caused by different viruses, influenza (also called the flu) can be mistaken for coronavirus (COVID-19) because of their similar symptoms.

Understanding the differences between the two can help you determine whether or not you need to isolate, get tested, or seek care

In this article, I’ll describe many of the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and the flu, including the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, severity, complications, and prevention of each.

I’ll also cover how the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccines differ.

Finally, I’ll explain when you should see a healthcare provider about your symptoms so you can receive an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.

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COVID-19 and Flu Basics

Because of their shared symptoms, ways of spreading, and complications, it can be very challenging for someone to know whether they may be infected with the flu or COVID-19.

However, it’s important to identify which virus may be causing your symptoms, as the flu and COVID-19 have vastly different risks and outcomes and require different kinds of care.

Similarities

Both the flu and COVID-19 are highly infectious respiratory illnesses caused by viruses.

Both spread through airborne droplets and can result in serious complications, including pneumonia, organ failure, and death.

Older adults, the immunocompromised, and young children are at a higher risk of severe illness and complications from both COVID-19 and the flu. Both also have FDA-approved and FDA-authorized vaccines. 

Differences

Compared with those who come down with the flu, people who contract COVID-19 have a higher risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

COVID-19 also has a longer incubation period (the time between exposure and the first appearance of symptoms), and its symptoms tend to last longer than those caused by the flu. 

Additionally, while both vaccines are effective, COVID-19 vaccines are more so.

The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioN-Tech and Moderna are both more than 90% effective effective at preventing severe illness up to six months after the second shot.

Compare this with flu vaccines, which reduce the risk of illness by 40-60% in the general population.

COVID-19 vs. Flu Symptoms

One of the biggest difficulties in differentiating between a COVID-19 infection and the flu is their shared symptoms.

However, there are some ways in which their symptoms differ. 

Similarities

Some symptoms can appear with both COVID-19 and the flu: 

Differences

However, some symptoms of COVID-19 are extremely rare with the flu:

And symptoms that are common with the flu but seen less often with COVID-19 include:

COVID-19 vs. Flu Causes

COVID-19 and the flu are both viral infections, but they’re caused by different viruses.

Similarities

Both viruses are highly contagious and spread in people through respiratory droplets.

There are also multiple strains of both the flu and COVID-19. 

Differences

COVID-19 is spread by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a type of coronavirus that was discovered in 2019.

Influenza A and B viruses are responsible for most seasonal flu epidemics in the U.S each year. 

COVID-19 vs. Flu Diagnosis

If you’re experiencing symptoms and want to know if you have the flu or COVID-19, similar methods can help diagnose your illness.

Similarities

Both COVID-19 and the flu can be diagnosed through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

In fact, many of these tests are used to diagnose both influenza and COVID-19.

Keep in mind that it’s possible to have both infections at the same time.

Differences

During flu season, your doctor may diagnose you with influenza based on your symptoms alone.

For COVID-19, a PCR or antigen test is required to officially diagnose the infection. 

COVID-19 vs. Flu Treatment

Mild cases of both COVID-19 and the flu can often be managed at home.

But if you have a severe infection of either, you may require hospitalization, where different types of treatment are available depending on your infection. 

Similarities

In mild infections of both COVID-19 and the flu, rest, plenty of fluids, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications are often all that’s needed to manage and soothe symptoms.

In more severe cases, people with the flu and COVID-19 should receive supportive medical care in the hospital. 

Differences

Several prescription antiviral drugs are FDA-approved to treat the flu.

To date, only one antiviral drug, remdesivir (Veklury), is FDA-approved to treat COVID-19.

Due to the emergency state of the pandemic, the FDA has also issued emergency use authorizations (EUAs) to allow healthcare professionals to use other investigational products that have not yet been approved to treat COVID-19 patients. 

COVID-19 vs. Flu Severity and Spread

COVID-19 and the flu are both highly infectious illnesses that spread easily between people.

However, evidence shows that COVID-19 is more contagious and can cause more serious illness in some people.

Similarities

Both COVID-19 and the flu are largely spread through person-to-person contact via small airborne particles.

People infected with either virus can be contagious before showing symptoms, when experiencing mild symptoms, or when asymptomatic (without any symptoms).

Differences

COVID-19 is generally more contagious than the flu and is more likely to cause severe illness and death.

There have also been more “superspreader” events (gatherings where even just a single infected person causes many others to contract a virus) with COVID-19 than with the flu.

COVID-19 vs. Flu Complications and Risks

Both COVID-19 and the flu can cause severe illness, hospitalization, complications, and death.

However, the risks and rates of complications are higher with COVID-19 than with the flu.

Similarities

COVID-19 and the flu can cause similar complications, including:

  • Pneumonia
  • Respiratory failure
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Sepsis
  • Cardiac injury
  • Multiple-organ failure
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions
  • Inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissues
  • Secondary bacterial or fungal infections

Differences

COVID-19 causes more serious illness, hospitalization, and death than the flu.

Between 2019 and 2020 in the U.S., 22,000 people died of the flu and more than 630,000 people died of COVID-19

Additionally, long-lasting symptoms that persist after the initial infection clears are more prevalent with COVID-19 than with the flu.

COVID-19 vs. Flu Prevention

Similar practices can help prevent COVID-19 and the flu. 

Similarities

Everyday actions can help prevent infections from both viruses:

  • Limiting person-to-person contact
  • Wearing a mask in public
  • Washing hands thoroughly and frequently
  • Ventilating indoor spaces
  • Getting vaccinated when eligible

Differences

There are no major differences in COVID-19 and flu prevention. 

COVID-19 vs. Flu Vaccine

Both COVID-19 and the flu have FDA-approved and authorized vaccines. 

Similarities

Flu and COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing infection, severe illness, and death.

Differences

COVID-19 vaccines are more effective than flu vaccines.

Up to six months after receiving the second dose, the Pfizer-BioN-Tech and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are more than 90% effective effective at preventing severe illness.

Meanwhile, flu vaccines reduce the risk of illness by 40-60% in the general population. 

Another difference between the vaccines is that the flu vaccines change from year to year depending on which strains of the influenza virus are most prevalent that year. 

Not sure if you have covid or the flu? Check your symptoms for free today.

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When to See a Doctor

If you experience any severe symptoms of a COVID-19 or the flu, seek urgent care immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent chest pain and/or pressure 
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the flu and COVID-19 caused by the same thing?
No. Both the flu and COVID-19 are viral infections but they’re caused by different viruses.
Is the flu or the coronavirus more dangerous?
Coronavirus is more dangerous than the flu because of its higher rates of severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
Can I get both the COVID vaccine and the flu vaccine?
Yes. Vaccines for COVID-19 and the flu are both safe and effective at preventing infection and severe illness. Getting vaccinated when you’re able is the best way to help protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community. You can even get both vaccines on the same day.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Arielle Mitton

Dr. Mitton is a board certified internal medicine physician with over 6 years of experience in urgent care and additional training in geriatric medicine. She completed her trainings at Mount Sinai Hospital and UCLA. She is on the board of the Hyperemesis Research Foundation to help women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum.