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An Infectious Disease Specialist Compares Coronavirus & Flu Symptoms

Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager By Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
How Are The Coronavirus & Flu Symptoms Different? An Expert Explains

In the U.S., a total of 53 cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed. Of those, only one has been a community transmission case, meaning it's unclear how that person was infected. Since uncertainty can often lead to fear, we consulted infectious disease specialist Sandra Kesh, M.D., to help reorient our risk perception. 

She explained just how similar influenza and coronavirus can be and simple ways we can help protect against each one. 

How do the two compare?

"Since coronavirus and influenza have a lot of similar symptoms, it's difficult right now to distinguish the two," Kesh said. They both include fever, muscle aches, sore throat, coughing, and shortness of breath. The severity can also be the same. 

Since both are respiratory infections, they can lead to drippy nose and sneezing, as well. Unless you develop a fever along with these symptoms, you likely just have seasonal allergies.

With both influenza and the flu, transmissibility can only happen within 6 feet of an infected person. "At this point, you don't need to fear going to school, work, or the grocery store," Kesh said. "The level of risk is just really not there."

In fact, if someone comes in contact with a coronavirus, they'll likely just contract a cold, or at worst, the flu. Both diseases are primarily dangerous for older populations, people who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised, "but the vast majority of us are going to be OK," she said. 

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How do the two differ?

Preliminarily, it looks like coronavirus might be more infectious than the flu, she said, but it's probably too soon to say with certainty. 

The mortality rate of influenza is 0.1%, and in China (outside of the province where the outbreak started), the mortality rate was 0.4% for coronavirus. "That's where people are hearing coronavirus is four times more fatal than the flu," Kesh said. "But we're talking about 0.1 and 0.4, which are tiny, tiny numbers."

In fact, according to Kesh, the majority of people have only minor symptoms of coronavirus and make a full recovery.

When should you see a doctor for your symptoms?

Kesh asks two questions when it comes to checking for symptoms: 

  1. Have you traveled to China, Japan, Italy, or Iran (or other regions on the CDC travel advisory list)? If so, have your symptoms popped up within 14 days of your travel?
  2. Have you come in contact with a known case? 

"If you answer no to both questions," Kesh said, "there's nothing further to worry about." But if you answered yes, she said the key thing is not to walk into a doctor's office. Yes, you should seek treatment, but call ahead so the doctor can take necessary precautions. 

"Most people will have mild, moderate symptoms," she said, "but if a bunch of sick people start going to the doctor's office and leaving germs in the waiting room, that's how this sort of thing really takes off."

Being proactive by staying home when you're sick, keeping 6 feet away from someone who's infected, washing your hands properly, and avoiding touching your face—which we often do subconsciously—are simple and effective ways to avoid contracting influenza and coronavirus.

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