Difference between – Coronavirus (COVID-19), Flu and Common cold – (Symptoms and signs)

Coronavirus 2019 disease, common flu/influenza, and common cold share the same symptoms and oftentimes mistaken with one another.

Although the symptoms look very similar it is important to note that they are caused by different viruses. Symptoms may look the same but there are distinctions and that’s what you get to find out in this article.

flu vs cold vs corona symptoms

Image 1: The symptoms of flu and coronavirus 2019 disease are very similar that it’s difficult to distinguish the two without undergoing the diagnostic procedure.

Similarities between coronavirus (COVID-19) disease, common flu, and cold?

They are similar in symptoms which are characterized by:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Tiredness/fatigue
  • Cough
  • Sometimes come with vomiting and diarrhea
  • Could progress to pneumonia

They are the same in the mode of transmission

It can be spread from one human to another through droplets in the air such as when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

They are the same in treatment. They are caused by a virus and no antiviral drugs have been created to address the problem. Antimicrobial/antibacterial drugs and antipyretic medications can be used to manage symptoms such as fever and cough. Severe cases may warrant hospitalization, especially if the patient needs to be put on a mechanical ventilator.

They are the same in preventive measures. The spread of infection can be prevented through frequent hand washing, staying at home when not feeling well, and observing coughing etiquette such as coughing in the crook of the elbow, and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing. (1, 2, 3, and 4)


Differences between COVID-19, common flu, and cold

They differ in causes

COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus, which is now called SARS-CoV-2 or severe acute respiratory syndrome 2. On the other hand, the common flu is caused by strains of the influenza virus and common cold is caused by different types of virus such as rhinoviruses.

They differ in vaccines

Currently, there is no vaccine available to prevent COVID-19, although experts are doing their research to come up with vaccines.

As with the common flu, vaccines are already available. They prevent the dangerous types of flu and reduce the severity.

They differ in the number of infected people

Coronavirus 2019 disease has infected over 100,000 people across the globe and counting. The common flu affects millions of people around the world.

In the United States alone, there about 40 million cases of flu every year. The same thing goes for common colds, which is prevalent during winter season. Millions of people suffer from cold and mostly common in children and the elderly.

They differ in the number of the death toll

As of april 7, 2020, the number of death associated with coronavirus 2019 disease has climbed up to 3, 491 worldwide. With the common flu, about 300,000 people die worldwide. With cold, the death is rare but could lead to fatal complications like pneumonia when not managed timely.

They differ in the speed of the spread of infection

For the common flu, the incubation period usually ranges between one to four days, but some people remain contagious even before the symptoms appear and about seven days after the symptoms exhibit.

As with the coronavirus 2019 disease, the incubation period ranges between 2 to 14 days, way longer when compared to flu. COVID-19 is more contagious too as even those with mild symptoms can spread the disease to more than two people. (5, 6, 7, and 8)

They differ in symptoms

Common colds start out with a scratchy throat (sore throat), runny/stuffy nose, cough, and mild fever. Flu symptoms are sudden and characterized by a high fever, body pain, chills, dry cough, and a feeling of exhaustion.

The patient may also experience runny/stuffy nose and headache. As with COVID-19 symptoms, they slowly progress, but the three cardinal symptoms are fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath.

Alert # Peculiar Clue to Coronavirus Infection = May be “Lost Sense of Smell”

Reference : https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/health/coronavirus-symptoms-smell-taste.html


The image sums up the difference between flu and COVID-19 and why the latter is more dangerous.

Image 2: The image sums up the difference between flu and COVID-19 and why the latter is more dangerous.
Picture Source: newslanes.com

What to keep in mind?

Coronavirus disease 2019’s situation changes rapidly. The virus is new and vaccines are not yet available. It would take a very long time for the vaccine to be available. The best way to prevent the spread of infection is through frequent hand washing.

If you are sick, you should stay at home to prevent the spread of infection and to protect yourself from other infections that could be harbored from the environment. If water and soap are not available, then you can sanitize your hand using alcohol or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. You should refrain from touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Although the symptoms of coronavirus 2019 disease, flu, and cold are alike, there are a few distinguishing symptoms. The table below shows the differences between the three symptom-wise.


Symptoms Coronavirus /COVID-19 Common Flu/Seasonal Flu Common cold
Fever Yes Yes


Tiredness/fatigue Sometimes Yes Sometimes
Coughing Yes (dry cough) Yes (dry cough) Mild
Sneezing No No Yes
Stuffy nose/runny nose Rare Sometimes Yes/common
Sore throat Sometimes Sometimes Yes /common
Diarrhea  Rare (severe cases) It could happen but usually in children No
Shortness of breath Sometimes (severe cases) No No
Headache  Sometimes Yes Rare
Myalgia (muscle aches and pain) Sometimes Common Rare

What makes coronavirus 2019 disease/COVID-19 more dangerous than flu?

Coronavirus 2019 disease has been far deadlier when compared with seasonal flu. The death row for coronavirus is now at 3.4% and the number is expected to grow as the infection continues to affect people from all across the globe.

Fortunately, 80% of coronavirus cases are mild and those who go to the hospital are those experienced severe symptoms. As mentioned above, seasonal flu kills a huge number of people every year but the death rate is low.

According to the Center for Disease Control, last flu season about 32 million people have gotten the flu but only 300,000 were hospitalized and only 18,000 led to death.

Another point to keep in mind is although the death rate for flu is low, the severity still depends on the strain of virus circulating every year. this explains why the flu vaccine is not 100% effective.

Going back to COVID-19, it is more fatal than flu across all age range, although it easily infects older people. About 15% of coronavirus patients age 80 years old and above have died. Aside from the elderly, coronavirus affects those who have an already existing health condition.

Coronavirus is a new strain of the virus, which makes it even deadlier than flu. Since it is new, no one has immunity with making more people susceptible to infection. Scientists are doing the best they can to develop treatments and vaccines to stop the outbreak. (7, 8, 9, and 10)



  1. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-symptoms-covid-19-cold-flu-difference-latest-a9389511.html
  2. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/covid-19-vs-seasonal-flu-what-you-need-to-know-about-both/
  3. https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—3-march-2020
  4. https://www.healthline.com/health/coronavirus-symptoms
  5. https://www.livescience.com/new-coronavirus-compare-with-flu.html
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/11/coronavirus-facts-cure-mortality-rate-virus-covid-19-flu
  7. https://whnt.com/news/huntsville/do-know-the-difference-between-the-flu-and-the-covid-19-coronavirus/
  8. https://www.fox5ny.com/news/flu-vs-common-cold-vs-covid-19-similar-symptoms-many-questions
  9. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/how-tell-difference-between-coronavirus-17873310
  10. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/flu-coronavirus-similar-symptoms-fears-69514552

Published by Dr. Raj MD under Diseases and Conditions.
Article was last reviewed on April 7th, 2020.

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