Coronavirus or the Flu: How to Tell The Difference

The coronavirus pandemic that emerged in 2019 shares many similarities with the seasonal flu. Nonetheless, there are several minor differences between them. With all eyes on the spread of coronavirus and the massive amount of media coverage, a sneeze or cough may make you think “Do I have COVID-19?”. It is common to think like that, but you should understand the differences between the flu and coronavirus. 

Coronavirus or the Flu?

The cause of novel coronavirus is SARS-CoV-2 virus while the underlying cause of seasonal flu is influenza viruses. Both diseases are contagious and have a similar presentation of respiratory diseases.  Though the virus can attack any individual of any age, older aged 65+ and those with chronic conditions are specifically susceptible to respiratory illness.  Let’s compare the common symptoms and why these viruses are often confused.

Common Symptoms

Many of the symptoms of both infections that are similar;

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Body ache and fatigue
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • nausea or diarrhea

However, there is a minor variation in the severity of these symptoms that are presented in the table below.


Influenza (Flu)
Fever/Chills Often Often
Cough Often Often
Difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath Often Rare
Sore throat Sometimes Sometimes
Headache Sometimes Often
Body ache and fatigue Sometimes Often
Stuffy or runny nose Rare Often
Diarrhea Rare Sometimes (for children)

Loss of smell and loss of taste are the symptoms linked with COVID-19. There is also a possibility that some people with COVID-19 might not experience any symptoms or mild symptoms.

Symptom Onset

The initial symptoms of COVID-19 are mild and the disease progresses gradually with time while the symptoms of flu are sudden in majority of cases. The symptoms start to surface within 1 to 4 days of contracting influenza. In contrast, the incubation period for COVID-19 is 5 to 14 days, indicating that the flu can spread faster than COVID-19.


Both viruses are transmitted through the respiratory route when an infected person coughs or sneezes releasing small droplets with pathogens in the air. The deposition of these droplets on surrounding objects is the underlying reason for transmission. As per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people should maintain a distance of at least 6 feet to prevent transmission of both the viruses. It has been reported an infected person with COVID-19 can infect about 3 people while the transmission rate for flu is 1 to 2 people. 


The comparison of the hospitalization cases of COVID-19 and flu by age is presented in the table below. 

Age Group

Cumulative Rate per 100,000 Population
Influenza (Flu)**
Overall 151.7 67
   0-4 years 14.7 93.7
   5-17 years 8.1 23.9
   18-49 years 102.2 34.2
   50-64 years 228.1 90.1
   65+ years 412.9 173.7
     65-74 years 308.6 135.9
     75-84 years 490.4 205.6
     85+ years 751.2 288.5

Rates as of *15 August 2020 and **22 August 2020.


The mortality rate for flu is estimated to be around 0.1% whereas over 3% for the coronavirus across the globe. In both the flu and the coronavirus disease, the individuals highly at risk of mortality and suffering complications are those having weak immunity like the elderly and people with chronic conditions. This indicates that most individuals with Medicare are highly susceptible to COVID-19. Thus, if you or loved ones are 65+, you should know that Medicare covers the lab tests and the related hospitalizations. Moreover, Medicare has also expanded its virtual services to deal with the pandemic, preventing you from visiting a medical facility that reduces the chances of contraction.

Medicare and Covid-19

  • Medicare covers the lab tests for COVID-19. You pay no out-of-pocket costs.
  • Medicare covers FDA-authorized COVID-19 antibody (or “serology”) tests if you were diagnosed with a known current or known prior COVID-19 infection or suspected current or suspected past COVID-19 infection.
  • Medicare covers all medically necessary hospitalizations. This includes if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19 and might otherwise have been discharged from the hospital after an inpatient stay, but instead you need to stay in the hospital under quarantine. You’ll still pay for any hospital deductibles, copays, or coinsurances that apply.
  • If you have a Medicare Advantage Plan, you have access to these same benefits. Medicare allows these plans to waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 lab tests. Many plans offer additional telehealth benefits and expanded benefits, like meal delivery or medical transport services. Check with your plan about your coverage and costs.
  • Waiving certain requirements for skilled nursing facility care.

Flu Shots

Medicare Part B covers one flu shot per season.


If you think you may have COVID-19 or the flu please contact your family doctor.  If you need further information about your Medicare plan, contact one of our Medicare professionals using the button below for a complimentary review of your benefits.
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