The spread of coronavirus in the U.S. has plenty of people worried. But, as freaky as it is to to hear words like "pandemic" thrown around, the data shows that most people who contract the virus have relatively mild symptoms.
A recent study published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that, of the 44,672 coronavirus cases that were confirmed in China by February 11, more than 36,000 (81 percent) of those cases were mild. The study, which is the largest conducted to date on the novel coronavirus, specifically defined “mild” as cases that didn’t involve pneumonia or involved only mild pneumonia.
Still, data from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s real-time map that tracks coronavirus found that there are 101 confirmed cases of coronavirus, a.k.a. COVID-19, in the U.S., and that six Americans have died from the virus, so it's not something you should ignore.
So, what are the symptoms of coronavirus—and how are they different from the symptoms of a cold or the flu? Here's what infections disease experts say you should know:
How can you tell a cold from coronavirus?
Technically, the common cold is a form of coronavirus, points out infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. It’s just not that coronavirus.
Also, it's actually really tough to tell the difference between a mild case of coronavirus and the common cold—even for doctors, says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Instead, Schaffner says, doctors specifically have to test for coronavirus to know for sure if someone has Covid-19 as opposed to a cold.
In general, these are the symptoms you can expect from the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Possibly a fever (but most people with colds don’t have a fever)
Symptoms of a cold usually peak anywhere from two to three days after you contract it, the CDC says.
And, per the CDC, these are the symptoms you may experience with COVID-19:
Shortness of breath
Symptoms of coronavirus tend to show up anywhere from two to 14 days after someone has been exposed, the CDC says.
Treatment for milder cases of coronavirus and the common cold is also pretty much the same. “It’s all just about treating the symptoms,” Adalja says. There's no "cure" for either one.
How can you tell the flu from coronavirus symptoms?
Again, it’s really tough. “If two patients stand in front of me—one with a mild case of coronavirus and one with the flu—and tell me their symptoms, I cannot tell them apart,” Schaffner says. “For that, we need to test.”
Keep in mind, too, that you’re much more likely to come down with the flu than COVID-19. “We are in the middle of a bad flu season, especially for the influenza B strain, so it is much more likely that people will have influenza than COVID-19,” says Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.
Still, these are the symptoms of the flu, according to the CDC:
Fever or feeling feverish
Runny or stuffy nose
Muscle or body aches
Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)
People with coronavirus can have flu-like symptoms, Schaffner says. “Both the flu and coronavirus irritate the bronchial tubes, and that produces a cough that’s usually dry,” he says. “Both of these viruses can also make you feel worse in your entire body—you can feel really tired and you just want to go to bed because you have no energy.” Both the flu and coronavirus can also lead to pneumonia, Adalja says.
Flu treatment is different from coronavirus treatment, though. While you treat the symptoms in both situations, the flu can also be treated with the anti-viral medication oseltamivir (a.k.a. Tamiflu) and the flu shot can help prevent it or at least lessen the risk you’ll develop complications if you happen to contract the virus, Adalja says. There’s nothing similar for coronavirus.
What can you do to stay safe?
If you have a fever or cough, call your doctor for guidance on next steps, Dr. Keith Roach, an internist at NewYork-Presbyterian, says. The best way to lower your risk of contracting coronavirus—and basically any virus—is to practice good hand hygiene, Adalja says. The CDC specifically recommends following these steps every time you wash up:
Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap
Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. (The amount of time it takes to hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.)
Rinse your hands well under clean water.
Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
There are a few other things you can do: “Avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth,” Watkins says. “COVID-19 can remain on surfaces for a few hours, so disinfecting areas with bleach wipes is appropriate to reduce the risk of transmission.” It’s also a good idea to do your best to avoid people who appear to be sick, Adalja says.
And, for the record, no: You don’t need to wear a mask. The CDC does not recommend it and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently went on Twitter to say that they are “NOT effective” (his caps) in keeping the general public from catching coronavirus. So, there's that.
Also keep in mind that, in general, it’s a good idea to stay home if you’re sick (no matter what you have) to avoid the risk of spreading it to others, Schaffner says.
Overall, experts recommend practicing good hand hygiene and keeping on top of the latest news. “Go to trusted sources for information like the CDC,” says Suzanne Willard, Ph.D., a clinical professor and associate dean for global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing. “It is still new in this epidemic, and there is much unknown. There are lots of theories on this but stick to the facts.”
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