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COVID-19 vs. H1N1 – Understanding the Difference

Novel, meaning New, says it all when describing the current strain of Coronavirus.  It means researchers and doctors are trying to understand this new disease, known as COVID-19, and how to treat it.  For the rest of us, we have questions like, “What makes it different from H1N1 (Swine Flu) in terms of symptoms and treatment?  And how long will it last?”

According to Southern Seven Health Department, H1N1 is similar to COVID-19 in that it started in a foreign country (Mexico in 2009), closed schools and events, and overwhelmed hospitals with severely ill patients.  And other than sharing a few of the same symptoms, the similarities end there.  COVID-19, the illness caused by a severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS coronavirus 2, is much more contagious and many times more deadly than H1N1.  Moreover, COVID-19 is not the flu.

·       The most common symptoms are fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties.

·       No approved treatments.

·       No vaccine with approval expected to take 12-18 months.

·       Symptoms may appear up to two weeks after possible exposure.

·       More severe illness and deaths in older people.


·       The symptoms of H1N1 in people are similar to the symptoms of regular human flu and include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting associated with swine flu, as well.

·       Respond well to anti-viral drugs already used to treat the flu.

·       Vaccine available within 3 months of first diagnosed case.

·       Symptoms appear within one day to one week of exposure.

·       More severe illness in children and young adults because older people have built some immunity through exposure to similar strains of flu from decades before.


Although both diseases share some of the same symptoms, the primary symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.  H1N1 symptoms are that of regular flu.

In perhaps the most important difference between the two pandemics of the 21st century, H1N1 illnesses responded well to anti-viral drugs already used to treat the flu. People in close contact with someone who caught H1N1 were commonly given the drugs as a precaution, limiting its spread.  There is no approved treatment for COVID-19, which is why many places in the U.S. are on lockdown and quarantines ordered by public health officials.

The incubation period for H1N1 flu was about one day to one week, meaning people learned more quickly that they might be infected, and therefore contagious. It’s thought that COVID-19 symptoms may appear up to two weeks after a possible exposure, and that even asymptomatic people may be spreading the virus.

The COVID-19 appears to cause more severe illness and deaths in older people, although scientists are rushing to learn more. Nearly all who caught H1N1 developed mild to moderate symptoms, but health officials were concerned because of the higher risk for young people and pregnant women. With H1N1, children and young adults were more likely to get sick because older people had built up some immunity through exposure to similar strains of flu that had circulated decades before.

The first outbreak of H1N1 was reported in April 2009 in Mexico, and the disease soon spread across the U.S. border. By June, H1N1 had sickened about 21,500 Americans and caused 87 deaths across the country.  In roughly the same amount of time, there have been over 330,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 8,900 deaths in the U.S.

But there is good news.  As the new coronavirus spreads across the United States, leading health experts are noting that America has been here before, and past lessons are helping officials prepare for today’s crisis.  Because U.S. federal, state and local governments had already been preparing a coordinated response to disease outbreaks after the 2003 SARS and the avian flu (“bird flu”) in 2005, by 2009 many health care providers were quickly able to activate their pandemic flu plans in response to H1N1, which proved to be crucial.   These types of responses are in place today as well.

Unfortunately, at the time of this article there is no timeline for knowing with COVID-19 will pass, when exactly the nation’s peak will be, or when treatment will be available.  But we do know that researchers are working hard to understanding this disease and in the end what we learn will ultimately prepare us for the next possible pandemic.

For more information about COVID-19, visit


Date: 4/8/2020

For more information contact:   Shawnna Rhine, Community Outreach Coordinator/Public Information Officer
Southern Seven Health Department & Head Start
Phone:  618-845-2442  or  618-634-2297 ext. 9161       Cell: 618-614-9223   

Email:   Website:  Facebook: Southern Seven Health Department Instagram: Southern7HealthDepartment


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