Not all infections caused by viruses are the same

While they are all caused by viruses, COVID-19, the common cold, and influenza have different symptoms and treatments.

COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold are all caused by types of viruses, but they do not present themselves or get treated the same way.

Oklahoma State Department of Health District Nurse Manager Linda Vise said that although the frequency and severity may vary, these illnesses do have some similarities when it comes to symptoms. There are also differences.

The virus that is responsible for influenza can cause a variety of symptoms, including fever, tiredness, headache, runny nose, sneezing and coughing, sore throat and a decreased sense of smell.

“Like the flu, a common cold can also cause sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and coughing,” said Vise.

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and tiredness.

“Less common symptoms you may see are aches, sore throat, diarrhea, and loss of taste or smell,” said Vise. “Seek immediate medical attention when serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing or chest pain or pressure occurs.”

Three or four different flu viruses are expected by scientists each year, and multiple FDA-licensed influenza vaccines are produced annually, according to the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Currently, there is not a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 or a cure for it.

Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins, said these viruses are not treatable with antibiotics, which only work on bacterial infections.

“Both are treated by addressing symptoms, such as reducing fever. Severe cases may require hospitalization and support such as mechanical ventilation,” said Maragakis. “Lasting damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other organs is possible after a severe case of COVID-19. Influenza complications can include inflammation of the heart, brain or muscles tissues, and multi-organ failure.”

Maragakis said the COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly.

“Since this disease is caused by a new virus, people do not have immunity to it, and a vaccine may be many months away,” she said. “Doctors and scientists are working to estimate the mortality rate of COVID-19, but at present, it is thought to be substantially higher than that of most strains of the flu.”

While health systems and governments have been collecting the coronavirus testing data, the flu is not required to be reported everywhere in the U.S. or world. This means the actual numbers of flu cases or deaths are not known.

The World Health Organization estimates that 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes every year worldwide. Approximately 590,608 deaths have been reported worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases map, as of July 17.

For both COVID-19 and flu, it is possible to spread the virus for at least one day before experiencing any symptoms, according to the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. If a person has COVID-19, they may be contagious for a longer period of time than if they had the flu, states

OU Medicine Chief Quality Officer and University of Oklahoma Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said in an interview in an OU Medicine Oklahoma Health News interview that he hears people often say, “I don’t need to wear a mask. I feel fine.”

“It turns out that 40-45 percent of people who get infected with this virus have no symptoms. They don’t know they’re infected, they don’t seek medical care, and they don’t get a test. So, those are the people, though, that can go out into public and, if they’re not wearing a mask, can potentially spread the virus to the people around them,” said Bratzler.

He noted that one of the larger age groups testing positive currently in the state are 18-35 year olds.

“They are more likely to be asymptomatic,” said Bratzler. “You have to assume right now that anybody you encounter could be infected – you don’t know and they don’t know.”

To prevent the spread of these viruses, the Cherokee County Health Department encourages frequent handwashing and disinfection of surfaces.

“In addition, using a tissue to cover sneezing or coughing for the common cold or flu; and wearing a mask for COVID-19 symptoms is also extremely important,” said Vise.

Learn more

For more information about these illnesses or to request a free COVID-19 test, contact Cherokee County Health Department at 918-456-8826.

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