#CoronaVirusSA: Flu and Covid-19 — what’s the difference?

Flu vs Corona virus:Credit(Luntu Ndzanze/Health-e News)
Written by Thabo Molelekwa

Globally, and in South Africa, the number of Covid-19 infections are increasing at an alarming rate. We spoke to a medical epidemiologist, who clears up fact from fiction about the virus’ symptoms, and if you should get tested

As South Africa heads into winter, and seasonal flu becomes more prevalent, how do you know whether you have a ‘normal flu’ or Covid-19? Health-e News speaks to Dr Sibongile Walaza, a medical epidemiologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) who explains the differences and similarities between influenza, which causes the flu, and the novel coronavirus — simply known as Covid-19.

Some similar symptoms, but different viruses

  “Covid-19 and influenza viruses have a similar disease presentation. That is, they both cause respiratory disease, which presents as a wide range of illness from asymptomatic, or mild, through to severe disease and death,” she says.

The similar disease presentation Walaza refers to are the following symptoms: fever, cough, body aches, fatigue, occasional vomiting and diarrhoea — and both viruses can result in pneumonia.

However, notes Walaza, the one main difference in terms of how the disease presents, is shortness of breath.

“One main difference in terms of disease presentation is shortness of breath, which is a common sign of Covid-19. Comparatively, the flu does not cause shortness of breath unless it has progressed to pneumonia,” she says.

Although the symptoms of Covid-19 and the flu can look similar, Walaza explains that the two illnesses are caused by different viruses. 

More specifically, Covid-19 is caused by the novel 2019 coronavirus, now called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. Influenza, or “Flu”, is caused by any influenza virus of several different types and strains of influenza viruses (Influenza A or B).

 She tells Health-e News that there is no need to panic if a person displays flu-like symptoms for one to two weeks. 

“Patients with influenza or Covid-19 present similar symptoms, therefore, it is difficult to distinguish between the two. But, this does provide more reason to get your seasonal influenza vaccine,” Walaza says.

Coronavirus case definition

 “Individuals should only get tested for Covid-19 if they meet the Covid-19 case definition which is found on the NICD’s website,” urges Walaza.

 The NICD case definition puts strict limitations on who should get tested, and who falls outside of the testing bracket. These limitations are put in place to reduce panic-testing, and the burden on South Africa’s healthcare systems and resources.

The case conditions are as follows:

Any persons with acute respiratory illness with a sudden onset of at least one of the following: cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or fever [≥ 38°C (measured) or history of fever (subjective)] irrespective of admission status, and in the 14 days prior to onset of symptoms, met at least one of the following epidemiological criteria:

  • Were in close contact with a confirmed or probable case of SARS-CoV-2 infection, or;
  • Had a history of travel to areas with local transmission of SARS-CoV-2; (Affected countries will change with time, consult the NICD website for current updates), or;
  • Worked in, or attended a healthcare facility where patients with SARS-CoV-2 infections were being treated, or;
  •  Admitted with severe pneumonia of unknown aetiology.-Health-e News


For more information on the virus, you can the toll-free public line: 0800 029 999 or 0800 111 132, or you can send a message that says “Hi” on Whatsapp to the number 060 012 3456 to get updates on Covid-19 in South Africa. You can also visit

About the author

Thabo Molelekwa

Thabo Molelekwa joined OurHealth citizen journalists project in 2013 and went on to become an intern reporter in 2015. Before joining Health-e News, Thabo was a member of the Treatment Action Campaign’s Vosloorus branch. He graduated from the Tshwane University of Technology with a diploma in Computer Systems and started his career at Discovery Health as a claims assessor. In 2016 he was named an International HIV Prevention Reporting Fellow with the International Centre for Journalists and was a finalist in the Discovery Health Journalism Awards competition in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Thabo also completed a feature writing course at the University of Cape Town in 2016. In 2017 he became a News reporter , he is currently managing the Citizen Journalism programme.You can follow him on @molelekwa98