Is The Flu Really Worse Than COVID-19?

COVID-19 and the flu are both respiratory diseases that can be fatal. One is still rare around the world, while the other is widespread. Should we be more afraid of one than the other?

Because the flu is so much more common, we told you to channel any coronavirus-related nervous energy into getting your flu shot so that you won’t confuse yourself or your care providers with flu-like symptoms. Along those same lines, practicing good hygiene like washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick will help to curb the spread of either disease.

But it’s not appropriate to completely dismiss the seriousness of COVID-19. It’s a very serious disease, and a definite threat if you live in one of the places (like Wuhan, China) where an outbreak currently exists. From a public health perspective, governments and health systems everywhere need to know how to watch out for it and handle cases appropriately. Panic doesn’t help, but neither does apathy.

We asked epidemiologist Tara C. Smith for help in understanding how flu compares to coronavirus in the big picture. She’s a public health expert who follows both the science and the way people communicate about infectious diseases.

Which is more contagious?

“SARS-CoV-2 seems to be more contagious than your average yearly flu,” says Smith. (That’s the new official name of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.) A person with COVID-19 tends to spread it to about three other people, compared to about 1.5 for the seasonal flu.

But we still don’t have a full picture of how the disease spreads. You can spread the flu before you start showing symptoms yourself, but it’s an open question whether this happens with the new coronavirus. We also haven’t been able to test very widely for the coronavirus, so it’s possible that there are more cases out there than have been officially counted. This week, the CDC plans to start testing for the coronavirus in samples from people with flu-like symptoms, regardless of their travel history.

Which is the scarier disease to actually get?

“I think there’s still a lot that’s unknown to make that ‘scarier’ calculation still tough to really know,” says Smith. She points out that we do have a vaccine to protect ourselves partially from the flu, but no effective prevention yet against the coronavirus.

COVID-19 does seem to have a higher fatality rate than the flu, with estimates ranging from 18% among people with the disease who had pneumonia when they were tested, to under 2% when people with milder symptoms or no symptoms were tested. (The equivalent number for the flu is well under 1%.)

So, how much should we worry?

I asked Smith if, given what we know, people should be concerned about the virus or should feel reassured that it’s rare. “I’m in the middle,” she says. The situation in China is serious, and she’s heard from people in the US who have had anxiety attacks worrying about COVID-19.

“I don’t think we need to lose sleep or obsess over this yet, but I think it’s always prudent to consider any eventuality.” Smith says her family stays prepared for emergencies in general, including power outages, by keeping emergency supplies on hand. If quarantines or supply issues were to affect your family, an emergency kit with basic supplies would be good to have; we have several guides to assembling such a kit, including this one.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to panic, just to keep an eye on this developing situation. “Even the experts don’t know how this is going to play out,” Smith says, “so I think it’s important to stay informed and know what’s happening.”


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