Coronavirus vs. the Flu: Which Is Deadlier and Which Spreads Faster?

More people die from the flu, but the exponential growth of COVID-19 is reason for serious concern.

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As the spread of COVID-19 gets dangerously close to being deemed an official pandemic, one of the major debates that's sprung up is about which is more dangerous, the flu or coronavirus. Though there is no clear answer, according to medical professionals, comparing the relative health risks of the flu versus coronavirus reveals distinct reasons for real concern over both maladies.

The flu is notoriously infectious, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus has infected up to an estimated 49 million people in the U.S. between Oct. 2019 through Feb. 2020. It's also estimated to have killed up to 52,000 people this current flu season, according to the CDC.

But simply comparing influenza deaths to those caused by coronavirus—which has caused 22 deaths in the U.S. at the time this article was published—might suggest that it is a much greater health risk than COVID-19. The death count, however, only tells part of the story.

Coronavirus has people concerned because it's a novel virus, meaning one that we have not seen the likes of before, and also because it's growing exponentially. And though some containment efforts are being made, it appears that coronavirus will likely spread far wider than previous deadly epidemics, like SARS and swine flu.

The growth is best illustrated by the following chart, which tracks the spread of coronavirus on a global scale:

As the CDC explains, the typical flu symptoms—fever, cough, sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue, and occasionally, vomiting and diarrhea—tend to come on suddenly after an incubation period of two to five days. Though a healthy individual will likely recover from the flu in two week's time, young people, old people, and those with compromised immune systems have trouble beating the flu back.

With coronavirus, on the other hand, there's much research to be done about its symptoms, its incubation period, and more. A study of 99 people in Wuhan, China, with coronavirus published in the journal The Lancet in January found that the most common symptoms were fever (83 percent), cough (82 percent), and shortness of breath (31 percent), with 5 percent reporting sore throat, 4 percent noting a runny nose, and an even smaller percentage reporting diarrhea (2 percent), nausea (1 percent), and vomiting (1 percent).

For now, the coronavirus has had far less of an impact on American lives than influenza. But the way it's spreading at an unforeseen rapid pace is the primary reason why so many people are reasonably concerned.

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