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Coronavirus versus the flu: What’s the difference?

Are you having symptoms of cold, cough and a runny nose? Here's how to find out whether it is seasonal flu or the novel Coronavirus.

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With the fast emerging pandemic of coronavirus or COVID-19, many are wondering if the disease differs from the flu and how to tell the two apart. Here is what we found out.

Both COVID-19 and flu are viral-borne infections which primarily spread through human-to-human contact, such as by means of coughing, respiratory droplets and phlegm. “The coronavirus and flu virus belong to different families. While the flu virus spreads through aerosol, it remains suspended in the air and the other person tends to catch it. On the other hand, coronavirus is more likely to spread by contact, for instance, touching the same surface,” explained Dr P Venkat, Internal Medicine, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram.

According to a February 2020 report of the World Health Organization (WHO)-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019, ‘airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19 and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence; however, it can be envisaged if certain aerosol-generating procedures are conducted in health care facilities’.

According to WHO, COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious viruses that cause respiratory illness and lead to symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, chest congestion, rise in temperature and if it gets difficult to contain, lead to pneumonia. While symptoms can appear anywhere between three to four days for flu, it takes two to 14 days for coronavirus symptoms to appear.

While symptoms for both include cough and cold, fever, runny nose, as per Dr Venkat, the only difference seen is when the sample is sent for testing. “A PCR test is done for flu where we test for the RNA (or Ribonucleic acid which is essential for any form of life) of the virus. For both the viruses, different PCR tests are done. Genotype of both the viruses are different. It can be differentiated only by lab tests, while clinically, it is next to impossible,” commented Dr Venkat.

Dr Manjeetha Nath Das, senior consultant, Internal Medicines, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurugram explained that as an “infectious respiratory disease caused by influenza virus”, flu infects the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. “Older people, young children and people with some chronic conditions (asthma, heart disease, diabetes, others) have an increased risk of serious complications including pneumonia,” she told

In hindsight, both may appear similar in the beginning. However, they belong to different virus families. Discovered only in 2019, the novel coronavirus wasn’t previously seen in humans. Compared to it, influenza virus was identified long ago, in 1918.

“Flu is seasonal. It takes place every year while no one knows of coronavirus — whether it is seasonal or not, because it’s a new infection,” added Dr Venkat.


Since scientists and public health officials are still learning more about symptoms and severity of COVID-19, the best way to prevent either illness is to take everyday precautions including frequent hand-washing; refraining from touching eyes, nose and mouth and staying home if sick.

While for now, the only prevention for COVID-19 is to quarantine, screen and practice good hygiene, Dr Das added, “The best way to prevent the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year.”

First published on: 09-03-2020 at 04:29:13 pm
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