Why COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu

Early on, comparisons between COVID-19 and the flu—or even the common cold —may have contributed to some confusion about these highly contagious respiratory infections.

Younger adults, in particular, may have the misconception that COVID-19 is only serious for older people and those with chronic health issues. In fact, adults of all ages have become severely ill. The risk of dying is much higher among older people, but a report issued on March 18 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nearly 40 percent of the patients sick enough to be hospitalized were between 20 and 54 years old.

There are also some key differences between COVID-19 and influenza that you should understand, especially as a new flu season is fast approaching.

People with COVID-19 may be infectious longer

The common cold, the flu, and COVID-19 are all spread from person to person through direct contact or droplet transmission.

Contact transmission includes direct exposure to someone who is sick. This includes shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. Those who are sick can also infect others when contaminated droplets from their coughs or sneezes land in a nearby person’s mouth or nose.

COVID-19 may also spread through the air via airborne spread, or aerosols— particles even smaller than respiratory droplets that may linger in the air. More research is needed to determine how much airborne transmission may be contributing to the spread of this disease.

People with COVID-19 may be contagious for at least 10 days, the CDC reports. Those with the flu, on the other hand, are contagious for about seven days.

COVID-19 is more deadly

One of the most important differences between the flu and COVID-19: Their mortality rates.

Many types of viruses are responsible for colds, but they’re most often caused by rhinoviruses. Most of these infections are mild, and people recover on their own without treatment. The flu, on the other hand, is caused by different strains of influenza viruses. Symptoms of the infection come on more suddenly and tend to be more severe than a cold. While colds can lead to a sore throat, cough, and runny nose, people with the flu may also develop a fever and experience chills, body aches, and fatigue.

In most cases, people with the flu will recover within a couple of weeks. But some people—particularly older people, babies, very young children, and those with underlying health issues—are more likely to develop complications such as pneumonia, inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle, or organ failure. In extreme cases, the flu can be fatal.

By comparison, the COVID-19 mortality rate appears to be higher. Just how much higher is still a matter of investigation. On March 3, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that about 3.4 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world are fatal. That would mean the novel coronavirus is more than 30 times more lethal than the flu, which claims tens of thousands of lives each year in the United States alone.

Moreover, the WHO estimates that more than 80 percent of those with COVID-19 will develop only a mild infection and recover. It’s widely believed that many more mild cases haven’t been detected and aren’t included in official counts.

If you think you might be sick

If you or your family develop any warning signs of infection, take steps to isolate yourself or your family. Call your primary care provider for instructions. Before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room, be sure to call ahead and tell the medical staff that you may have been exposed to COVID-19. They will help you determine if you need to be tested.

Call your primary care provider to schedule your flu shot to help prevent yourself from catching the flu.