COVID-19 and the upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) commonly known as “Flu” can cause similar symptoms. However, there are several differences between them.

Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by a strain of Coronavirus (a kind of common virus that causes an infection in your nose, sinuses, or upper throat), called SARS-CoV-2. Covid-19, which started off in a small province of Wuhan, China in November 2019, is a global pandemic today that has affected more than 220 countries across the world. 

Covid-19 spreads easily and rapidly from person to person and the most common symptoms include fever, sore throat, dry cough, tiredness, diarrhea, headache, and a loss of sense of taste and smell.

The upper respiratory tract includes the sinuses, nasal cavity (hollow cavity inside your nose), pharynx, and larynx. These structures direct the air we breathe from the outside to the trachea and eventually to the lungs for respiration. 

  • Sinuses are hollow cavities in the skull that produce mucus to moisturize the inside of your nose. This mucus layer protects the nose from pollutants, dust, dirt, micro-organisms, etc. 
  • The pharynx is located on the back of the throat and is the meeting point of the digestive and respiratory systems. 
  • The larynx, also known as the voice box, is the area of the throat that contains vocal cords and is used for breathing, swallowing, and talking.

Any infection in the above-mentioned components is known as upper respiratory tract infection (URTI).

The infection in the specific areas of the upper respiratory tract can be named specifically such as:

  • Rhinitis, inflammation, and infection in the nasal cavity.

  • Sinusitis, inflammation of the sinuses.

  • Nasopharyngitis, inflammation of the nares, pharynx, hypopharynx (bottom of the pharynx), uvula (a teardrop-shaped piece of soft tissue that hangs down at the back of your throat to prevent food from entering up your nose), and tonsils. Tonsils are fleshy pads located on each side of the back of your throat. Tonsils trap the bacteria or viruses that you breathe to prevent throat and lung infection.

  • Pharyngitis, inflammation of pharynx, uvula, and tonsils.

Both COVID-19 and the URTI are respiratory illnesses that are contagious (spread from person to person). 


The symptoms of the URTI and COVID-19 have some differences.

People who have the URTI will usually experience symptoms within one to four days. Whereas, the symptoms for COVID-19 can develop between one to fourteen days or can take more days to develop.

Symptoms of URTI:

Common symptoms of upper respiratory infection generally include:

  • Nasal congestion, runny nose (rhinorrhea), nasal discharge (may change from clear to white to green), discomfort in nasal breathing, sneezing

  • Sore or scratchy throat

  • Painful swallowing (odynophagia)

  • Coughing, malaise (a general feeling of being unwell)

  • Low-grade fever (more common in children).

Other less common symptoms may include:

  • Foul breath, reduced ability to smell (hyposmia)

  • Headache, sinus pain, body aches

  • Shortness of breath

  • Itchy and watery eyes

  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea

Mild symptoms of COVID-19:

  • Fever  

  • Cough 

  • Fatigue 

  • Loss of appetite

  • Sore throat

  • Headache 

Potential symptoms of COVID-19 consists:

  • Breathlessness 

  • Muscle pain

  • Chills 

  • Loss of taste or smell

Those in a critical state require a ventilator (a machine that helps you breathe or breathes for you) to breathe. The chance of severe and critical infection is higher with COVID-19 than with URTI.

COVID-19 is also more deadly. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), the mortality rate for COVID-19 appears to be much higher than that of URTI.


Both COVID-19 and the URTI can spread through person-to-person contact. Tiny droplets containing the viruses can pass from someone with the infection to someone else, typically through the nose and mouth through coughing and sneezing. 

According to the WHO, people should stay at least 6 feet away from anyone coughing or sneezing to help prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 infection.

The best ways to prevent spreading the COVID-19 virus includes:

  • Washing hands regularly.

  • Avoiding touching the face.

  • Keeping at least 6 ft away from anyone sneezing and coughing.

  • Covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing.

  • Staying at home if feeling unwell.

  • Working from home if possible.

  • Avoiding crowds and gatherings of any size.


COVID-19 is a viral infection and URTI can be viral (most common), bacterial, and rarely fungal.

Viruses are tiny microbes that survive by invading other living cells. These cells become host cells to the virus, which multiplies inside of them. They can then spread to new cells around the body.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause respiratory infections. The SARS-CoV-2 which causes coronavirus disease causes the infection that leads to COVID-19.

COVID-19 and URTI share some similar symptoms. The symptoms of URTI tend to occur faster and can have greater variation. But COVID-19 is more likely to lead to severe illness or death.

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