Coronavirus: What is the difference between Covid-19 and the common cold and flu?

Matt Mathers
Covid-19 shares many of the same symptoms as the flu making it difficult to tell the two illnesses apart: Getty Images

Due to the continued UK coronavirus outbreak Boris Johnson told the public they should only leave the house for several key reasons.

These include travelling to work as a keyworker, shopping for food or medicine and taking one form of exercise per day.

Those with underlying health conditions and people over the age of 70 should be self-isolating at home for a period of 12 weeks.

Elsewhere in the world, the whole of Italy and Spain have been put on lockdown.

Increasing panic has led to plunging stock markets, and some UK supermarkets including Tesco and Waitrose have begun rationing essential food stock and household items.

According to experts at John Hopkins University in the US, roughly one billion people catch the winter flu every year. It is estimated that between 290,000 and 650,000 of those who get the illness die.

So why is everyone worried about Covid-19, and how does it differ from the regular winter flu and common cold?

What is coronavirus?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

A novel coronavirus (nCoV) – like the one currently spreading across the world – is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

Covid-19 is thought to have originated in a food market in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and humans.

Because coronavirus is a new illness, the NHS says, we still don’t know exactly how it spreads. However, like other viruses, it is likely that it Covid-19 is passed from person to person through droplets of moisture that leave the body when coughing and sneezing.

How is coronavirus different from the flu and common cold?

The common cold is caused by a different strain of virus to the Covid-19.

Most coronaviruses, such as the common cold, cause mild infection in the upper respiratory tract and produce relatively minor symptoms such as a stuffy nose, sore head and sore throat.

People who contract Covid-19 suffer from respiratory systems that can cause coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and fever.

The infection can also cause pneumonia, kidney failure and in the most serious cases, death.

Meanwhile, flu is caused by a number of different influenza viruses. Flu is very infectious and easily spreads to other people, and is likely to be passed on to another person with the first five days of infection.

Flu symptoms can be slightly more serious than those associated with the common cold, with some people experiencing a loss of appetite, diarrhoea or tummy pain, feeling sick and being sick.

In the most serious cases, flu can also cause pneumonia.

In most people, common cold symptoms usually peak within the first two to three days of infection, while the effects of Covid-19 appear two to 14 days after exposure.

Why is coronavirus more dangerous than the common cold and flu and do you treat them differently?

For years, scientists have been studying flu and the common cold, meaning that a number of treatments, such as the flu jab are available to help battle against getting ill.

Because Covid-19 is new, there is no vaccination against it. Medics say it could be as long as a year before a Covid-19 vaccination is produced. Experts also fear that Covid-19 may be spreading faster than flu.

Public Health England (PHE) and the World Health Organisation have not recommended people wear gloves or face masks to protect themselves.

Protective items such as face masks and gloves can play a “very important role” in a clinical setting but there is “little widespread evidence” that they are useful for members of the public.

PHE says there are a number of things you can do to reduce spreading Covid-19, including covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and avoiding contact with people who are unwell. It’s also a good idea to get your flu jab if you haven’t already.

The health body also advises not to go to a GP or hospital if you think you have contracted Covid-19.

Instead, people feeling unwell and who have recognised symptoms should contact the online NHS 111 service and seek further assistance.

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