News & Events

COVID-19 vs. Flu

Dealing with the novel coronavirus at the tail end of flu season, and in the thick of allergy season, has raised a lot of questions, concerns and confusion among people who think they may be affected. One of the most common questions the public has seen floating around in recent weeks since this whole thing started is: isn’t this disease a lot like the flu? 

The quick answer? No. 

Even though there are some overlapping symptoms, COVID-19 is much worse. 

This by no means should downplay the seriousness of the seasonal flu (it’s important to get vaccinated!), especially for the high risk population. Regardless, what are the major ways that COVID-19 differs from the seasonal flu?


The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report the primary symptoms of COVID-19 as fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. The seasonal flu can also present these symptoms, but oftentimes people affected with COVID-19 will also experience muscle aches, chills, fatigue, headaches, and sometimes a runny nose and diarrhea. 


The speed of transmission is a major point of difference between the two viruses. In general, the flu has a shorter incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) with an average of 2 days. Recent research shows that COVID-19, however, has an incubation period of around 5 days but can be anywhere from 1-14 days.

According to data from China, experts estimate that each person infected with the novel coronavirus infects between 2-3 others, which is twice as high as the seasonal flu. It’s also important for people to keep in mind – especially those who are young and healthy – that the coronavirus can be transmitted to others even if you are not presenting any symptoms.


One of the major differences between COVID-19 and the flu is around treatment. While the flu has been around for 100+ years, this particular strain of the coronavirus was not even known to science prior to January of this year. The seasonal flu vaccine is widely available – and encouraged, and those infected with the flu are also sometimes prescribed an anti-viral medication to help with symptoms. Unfortunately, these options do not exists for COVID-19 since it is so new. 

If you think you have symptoms above please call your primary care doctor. 


Posted March 2020
The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.