Coronavirus: The difference between COVID-19 and flu symptoms

As New Zealand recorded its first patient infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus on Friday and panic-buying at supermarkets ensued, Kiwis turned to Google to learn more about the disease.

Google Trends shows the query "coronavirus symptoms" reached its search peak on Friday at 6pm, which is presumably when many people first heard of New Zealand's first case on the evening news.

A number of people who searched for coronavirus symptoms were also shown to look up the symptoms of various other illnesses, including the flu.

COVID-19 has triggered a considerable amount of anxiety, but how does it differ from more well-known illnesses?

Here's a closer look at COVID-19 and flu symptoms, and what to do if you believe you may have the newest coronavirus.

COVID-19 symptoms

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that range from the common cold to more severe diseases, including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

Common signs of COVID-19 infection include:

  • fever
  • a cough
  • shortness of breath
  • breathing difficulties.

The Ministry of Health says difficulty breathing is also a sign of possible pneumonia and "requires immediate medical attention".

Symptoms typically show between two and 10 days after someone has been infected.

The Ministry stresses that having any of these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have COVID-19.

Flu symptoms

The flu has similar symptoms to COVID-19, but there are also some extra signs to look out for. These include:

  • fever
  • a cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • headache
  • chills
  • stomach upset, vomiting or diarrhoea.

The Ministry of Health says it may take between one and four days for flu signs to show.

The worst symptoms usually last about five days, but coughing can last up to two-three weeks.

What to do if you think you have COVID-19 symptoms

The Ministry of Health urges anyone who believes they are symptomatic to call Healthline's dedicated COVID-19 helpline on 0800 358 5453.

But the Popular Science website says if you're showing symptoms but aren't feeling horribly ill, there's a good chance it's either a cold or the flu.

"Although the focus right now is on COVID-19, seasonal flu remains much more common," medicine professor at the University of Michigan Preeti Malani told Popular Science.

"In general, all of us should make an effort to stay home and rest while ill. Everyday respiratory viruses spread easily."

Serious symptoms are unlikely to emerge unless you're a more vulnerable member of the population. This includes elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems, according to The Guardian.

If you do happen to contract COVID-19, Popular Science says you should be less concerned about serious symptoms and more worried that you're transmitting the disease to more people.

How to prevent the spread of diseases

Similar to the flu, COVID-19 spreads from person to person through droplets. This means when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, they may generate droplets with the virus.

These drops are too large to stay in the air for long amounts of time, so they settle on surrounding surfaces.

That's why it's "really important" to practice good hygiene, the Ministry of Health says, by regularly washing and drying hands, and also coughing and sneezing into tissues or your elbow. This will also keep you from catching and spreading colds and the flu.