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The Difference Between Coronavirus And The Flu

They have similar symptoms, but COVID-19 is at least 10 times deadlier than the common flu -- and that's not the only reason doctors are worried.

Despite dire warnings from health authorities across the globe for ordinary citizens to take the COVID-19 coronavirus seriously, some online commentary and everyday conversations are downplaying the virus as little more serious than common seasonal influenza.

Coronavirus is not like the common flu. Image: Getty

While the two can have similar symptoms -- fever, runny nose, cough -- the coronavirus is completely different to influenza, and you need to take it far more seriously, infectious diseases experts warn.

What is the difference between the flu and coronavirus?

"Normal flu is caused by the influenza virus, which is a completely different group of viruses to the coronavirus," infectious diseases expert Raina MacIntyre said.

"Flu is a different group of viruses. It's a much less serious illness. It can be a serious infection but not as serious as COVID-19. With coronavirus, the chance of dying is at least 10 times higher," Professor MacIntyre said.

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Dr Chris Burrell, a virology expert, says the two are "completely unrelated viruses".

"The mortality rate from seasonal flu is about 0.1 per cent. With COVID-19, the rate is above one per cent, and in some studies, as high as four per cent."

Coronavirus is not related to the flu. Image: Getty

Burrell stressed some coronavirus studies may be "very unreliable" as the true rate of infection in some countries is not yet known.

He suggested that many people may have mild infections without knowing or being tested -- but said regardless, the mortality rate for COVID-19 was far higher than the regular flu.

MacIntyre said COVID-19 is likely to infect more people than the flu -- each coronavirus case having the potential to infect three other people, with flu more like two people -- and that an infected person remains contagious for up to 21 days.

This is much longer than the flu, for which a person remains contagious for between three and seven days.

What makes COVID-19 more dangerous than flu?

Burrell said, typically, 80 per cent of people who contract coronavirus have experienced mild symptoms. Another 15 have severe symptoms needing special care, and five per cent have critical issues requiring urgent care.

He said each year's flu season is different, but generally they are "more mild" and less serious than the coronavirus rate of illness.

Coronavirus clinics have opened nationwide. Image: AAP

Burrell said many people have some level of immunity to flu, and their bodies could battle the infection to some extent -- this could be thanks to a flu vaccine, or lingering immunity from a previous infection.

But he said the world does not have that protection against COVID-19.

"With coronavirus, the whole world is susceptible. This can determine the percentage of people being infected and the rate of spread.  If flu has to reach two or three people before finding one person susceptible, it won't spread as fast," Burrell said.

"If coronavirus gets a running start to spread, and it's not meeting any partly-resistant people, it can go through the whole population."

It's not just the direct illness and symptoms

Because nobody has immunity to COVID-19, and it could potentially be contracted by more people than the flu, there are fears it could overwhelm hospital systems.

On Wednesday, Scott Morrison announced thousands of student nurses will be tasked with assisting hospitals across the country in dealing with the crisis, to ease the burden on medical staff.

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"It's more than 10 times as likely to kill you, and also put you in hospital or intensive care," MacIntyre said.

"More people needing hospital cares or ICU beds will strain our system."

This links to the concept of "flattening the curve", a term which refers to spreading the number of coronavirus cases out over a longer period of time, so that fewer people are sick at once -- therefore the health system is under less strain.

Experts want the "curve" to flatten, to ease the COVID-19 burden on hospitals. Image: Getty

While hospitals are well-equipped to handle the current coronavirus load in Australia, health systems overseas, such as in Italy, have been overwhelmed, with more patients needing ICU beds than there are available. Doctors have been forced to make heartbreaking decisions on which people they give intensive care beds to, and who will miss out.

"People may be getting less than the best level of care because enough machines aren't there to  help," Burrell said.