COVID-19 vs Influenza: What You Should Know

Here is important information from the WHO to understand the difference. Fear and ignorance are our enemies.

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One of the things that is really complicating the situation with the novel Coronavirus is the fact that this outbreak is occurring during influenza season. According to the CDC, there have been at least 34 million flu cases, 350,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths from flu, including 136 children. Now, with coronavirus spreading throughout the world, it begs the question: what is the difference between the flu and coronavirus? The World Health Organization (WHO) has put out some great information, from which I learned a lot, and I wanted to share it with you:

Q. How are COVID-19 and influenza viruses similar?

These two viruses cause similar illnesses, with a wide range of manifestations from no symptoms at all, to mild disease, to severe disease and death. They are spread by droplets (coughing, sneezing), contact, and surfaces.

Q. How are COVID-19 and influenza viruses different?

Influenza has a shorter “incubation period,” which is the time from infection to appearance of symptoms, and shorter “serial interval,” which is time between successive cases. This means that influenza spreads faster than COVID-19.

Further, the major driver of spread for influenza is pre-symptom transmission, and it does not appear to be the case for COVID-19.

The “reproductive number,” meaning how many people one person can spread the virus to others is 2–2.5 for COVID-19, which is more than influenza.

Children are major drivers of influenza transmission, and it appears that children are less affected by COVID-19 than adults (thank God).

It appears that 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild or have no symptoms at all. Another 15% are severe infection, requiring oxygen, and 5% are critical infections, requiring a ventilator. This is higher than influenza.

Those at highest risk, as noted above, for severe influenza infection are children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic medical conditions and weak immune systems. For COVID-19, the elderly and people with underlying chronic conditions are at increased risk for severe infection.

It is clear that COVID-19 is deadlier than the flu. Right now, it is estimated that the mortality is between 3–4%. That number is likely way higher than the true mortality rate because we are not testing everyone that could have the virus. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually well below 0.1%.

Q. What medical interventions are available for COVID-19 and influenza viruses?

While there is a frantic effort to develop therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19, there are no licensed vaccines or treatments thus far. There are, however, good vaccines and treatments available for influenza.

The full report from the WHO can be found here.

So, what should we do about this information?

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Photo by Hyttalo Souza on Unsplash
  1. First of all, and most important, GET YOUR FLU VACCINE. Flu can be quite deadly, and I have seen influenza kill otherwise healthy young adults. It is not too late.
  2. Wash your hands — for 20 seconds with soap and water, ideally — and wash them often. If this is not possible, then use hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol.
  3. Practice proper respiratory etiquette — cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, and dispose of that tissue as soon as possible.

As of yet, we don’t know how bad the coronavirus outbreak will get and how much disruption it will cause. In addition to preparing ourselves — AND NOT PANICKING — it is of the utmost importance that we have good, accurate information with which to arm ourselves. Fear and ignorance are our biggest enemies.

NY Times featured Pulmonary and Critical Care Specialist | Physician Leader | Author and Blogger | His latest book is “Code Blue,” a medical thriller.

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