Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, are both infectious respiratory illnesses. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.

Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins, explains how the flu and COVID-19 are similar and how they are different.

Similarities: COVID-19 and the Flu

Symptoms

  • Both cause fever, cough, body aches and fatigue; sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Can be mild or severe, even fatal in rare cases.
  • Can result in pneumonia.

Transmission

  • Both can be spread from person to person through droplets in the air from an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking.
  • A possible difference: COVID-19 might be spread through the airborne route (see details below under Differences).
  • Both can be spread by an infected person for several days before their symptoms appear.

Treatment

  • Neither virus is treatable with antibiotics, which only work on bacterial infections.
  • Both are treated by addressing symptoms, such as reducing fever. Severe cases may require hospitalization and support such as mechanical ventilation.

Prevention

Both may be prevented by frequent, thorough hand washing, coughing into the crook of your elbow, staying home when sick and limiting contact with people who are infected. Social and physical distancing can limit the spread of COVID-19 in communities.

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