How coronavirus compares to other respiratory illnesses

Pharmacist Michael Witte, left, gives Rebecca Sirull, right, a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. Sirull is the third patient to receive the shot in the study. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Pharmacist Michael Witte, left, gives Rebecca Sirull, right, a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. Sirull is the third patient to receive the shot in the study. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Something people are reading often is others saying the coronavirus is just another flu or pneumonia, however, although some symptoms may be similar to other illnesses, COVID-19 can affect people differently.

COVID-19 aka Coronavirus

What is it? A highly contagious infectious disease that causes respiratory illness and, in severe cases, can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, where the lungs fill with fluid. There are no treatment drugs for ARDS.

  • Symptoms: Fever and dry cough are the two most common symptoms, followed by shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. It is not usually associated with runny or stuffy nose or chills. Severe cases can include pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
  • Incubation time: According to the CDC, symptoms typically appear about five days after exposure, but can occur up to 14 days after exposure. People can have and spread the virus without exhibiting any symptoms. Illness may last for two weeks, according to the CDC.
  • How it’s Spread: Largely through person-to-person contact of within about 6 feet, through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is currently thought to be possible to spread by touching surfaces with the virus on it, however that is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, according to the CDC.
  • Test: Tests can confirm diagnosis. This test involves a swabbing of the nasal cavity.
  • Recovery Rate: An interactive map from Johns Hopkins University indicates as of March 17, more than 185,000 cases have been confirmed globally, with more than 80,000 people having recovered. However, as we know from our local health officials alone, there are many pending cases daily, so actual numbers may vary as all cases may not be confirmed.
  • Death Rate: Current World Health Organization estimates indicate fatality rates are around 3.4%. News 6′s calculations from the current numbers on March 17 indicate a 3.96%. This was calculated using the 7,330 deaths reported on the Johns Hopkins University interactive map versus the 185,041 total confirmed cases.
  • Most at Risk: Older people and people of any age with severe chronic medical conditions, like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.
  • Vaccine/Treatment: There are no known specific treatments at this time. Vaccines are in trial, but won’t likely be widely available for one year to 18 months. At this time, scientists say there is no indication of developing natural immunity because it is a new virus.
  • To find current available data on confirmed cases, click here.


The dictionary definition of influenza is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory passages that causes fever, severe aching, and buildup of mucus. It has been involved in epidemics. According to the CDC:

  • Symptoms: Fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea. Symptom onset is abrupt.
  • Incubation Time: About two days. It can infect others 24 hours before symptoms develop and five to seven days after becoming sick. People are most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins. Most people recover anywhere from just a few days to two weeks.
  • How it’s Spread: Most easily through tiny droplets spread through the air when people cough, sneeze or talk. May be spread by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it.
  • Test: Tests can confirm diagnosis.
  • Recovery Rate: 5%-20% of the U.S. population gets the flu every year, most recover.
  • Death Rate: Seasonal flu has a fatality rate of less than 1%
  • Most at Risk: Adults aged 65 and older with certain chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart disease, pregnant women and children under five years old.
  • Vaccine/Treatment: Tamiflu and other antiviral drugs are often prescribed to lessen flu symptoms and shorten the duration. Vaccine is widely available. It is possible to develop some natural immunity.


The dictionary definition of pneumonia is lung inflammation caused by bacterial or viral infection in which the air sacs fill with pus and may become solid. Inflammation may affect both lungs, one lung or parts of the lungs.

  • Symptoms: Pneumonia often develops as a result of other illnesses and symptoms include fever, wheezing, cough, chills, rapid breathing, chest pains, loss of appetite and malaise, or a general feeling of weakness.
  • Incubation Time: Depends on the underlying cause of the disease. Most cases begin with similar symptoms to the cold or flu that last longer, about seven to 10 days.
  • How it’s Spread: The flu is a common cause of pneumonia. Not all causes are contagious via person-to-person contact, but some are. Therefore, it is important to avoid sick individuals.
  • Test: Diagnosed through chest X-ray.
  • Recovery Rate: Most recover.
  • Death Rate: Can be fatal in severe cases requiring intensive care.
  • Most at Risk: People aged over 65 or under two years old. As well as those with weak immune systems, underlying lung disease or neurological problems.
  • Vaccine/Treatment: Treatment varies depending on the cause. It can have more than 30 causes, bacterial, viral or fungal, so the cause is key in determining treatment. Vaccinations are available against several causes.


The Mayo Clinic defines bronchitis as an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. People who have bronchitis often cough up thickened mucus, which can be discolored. Bronchitis may be either acute or chronic.

  • Symptoms: Cough, mucus, fatigue, shortness of breath, slight fever and chills, chest discomfort.
  • Incubation Time: Acute bronchitis usually develops three to four days after the flu or a cold. Most people get over it in two to three weeks, although the cough can sometimes hang on for four weeks or more. Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a cough with phlegm for more than three months in a year, at least two years in a row.
  • How it’s Spread: Depends on the cause.
  • Test: Doctors may recommend a test to see how well your lungs are functioning or order a chest X-ray.
  • Recovery Rate: Most recover.
  • Death Rate: In 2016, the death rate of chronic bronchitis was 0.2% per 100,000 of the population, according to the CDC.
  • Most at Risk: Smokers, older adults and young children, those that work with lung irritants, and those that have gastric reflux.
  • Vaccine/Treatment: Treatments are generally limited to symptom relief like drinking lots of fluids and avoiding smoke or fumes. Doctors may also prescribe an inhaler or expectorant.

Common Cold

The dictionary definition of the common cold is an acute disease of the upper respiratory tract. Inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, eyes, and Eustachian tubes with a discharge and can be caused by several viruses. According to the CDC:

  • Symptoms: Symptoms come on gradually and generally include stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and can include hacking cough. Rarely includes fever or chills.
  • Incubation Time: 24 to 72 hours, most recover within 7-10 days.
  • How its Spread: Infections spread through the air and close personal contact.
  • Test: No test
  • Recovery Rate: Most recover.
  • Death Rate: Other complications may arise from the cold which can cause more serious outcomes, even death, though rare.
  • Most at Risk: Children under six, those with weakened immune systems. Most adults get two to three colds a year.
  • Vaccine/Treatment: No cure or vaccine, symptom relief with over-the-counter drugs typical.

For most of these, the best ways to prevent are the same basic hygiene principles we should all be practicing. Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use antibacterial sanitizers with 60% alcohol whenever soap is unavailable. Avoid touching your face and eyes with unwashed hands. Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, and then throw the tissue away. Stay at home when you are sick, and practice social distancing (staying 6 feet away from others) when in public.

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