Coronavirus symptoms are pretty similar to those associated with the flu—here's how to tell the difference.

By Arielle Tschinkel
March 02, 2020

Cold and flu season is already the time to be on your A-game when it comes to taking care of yourself. But as the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak continues to dominate headlines, it can feel overwhelming to cut through the noise and know what coronavirus symptoms to look for in case you start feeling sick.

For starters, media coverage about COVID-19 may be new, but coronaviruses themselves are not. They generally cause "what most people would recognize as the common cold," says Wesley Long, M.D., Ph.D., director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist. Meaning, you've probably been infected with a coronavirus strain at some point in your life.

But this particular strain of coronavirus is a "new member" of the coronavirus family, notes Dr. Long. It's believed to have started in a large seafood market in Wuhan, China, where it may have jumped from animals to humans before spreading from person to person.

"People tend to fear the unknown, and the idea of a new infectious disease similar to the flu for which we lack a vaccine or specific antiviral treatment can be frightening," explains Dr. Long. And since the World Health Organization's (WHO) latest update says there have been a total of 88,948 confirmed global cases of coronavirus and 3,043 coronavirus deaths, it makes sense that people are freaked out about it.

However, it's important to prepare for the spread of coronavirus, rather than panic about it, says Dr. Long. So, here's what you need to know about coronavirus symptoms and how to address them.

The Coronavirus Symptoms You Should Know About

The good news: Even if you haven't contracted the novel coronavirus, you're probably already familiar with its symptoms. "The most common signs and symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and shortness of breath," explains Dr. Long.

In other words, coronavirus symptoms more or less resemble those associated with the average cold or flu, says Neal Shipley, M.D., an emergency medicine doctor at Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care. (That said, the coronavirus mortality rate and the flu mortality rate aren't quite the same.)

However, the severity of coronavirus symptoms can vary from person to person, notes Dr. Long. In more serious cases of COVID-19, the infection can cause intense respiratory distress that may lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death, explains Dr. Shipley.

Those most at risk of severe illness from coronavirus include the very young, the very old, and people with generally weakened or impaired immune systems (which could be the result of something like an organ transplant, an underlying health condition like heart disease, and/or medications that affect the immune system), says Dr. Shipley.

While experts say it's difficult to pinpoint how long it takes for coronavirus symptoms to appear, "the generally accepted window from exposure to onset of symptoms is 2-14 days," says Dr. Long. (Related: Cold Vs. Flu: What Is the Difference?)

Is it possible to have coronavirus but no coronavirus symptoms?

To be clear, there's still a lot that experts don't know about COVID-19.

At this point, there isn't enough definitive data yet to know if some people may be able to carry the virus without showing visible coronavirus symptoms, says J.D. Zipkin, M.D., associate medical director of Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care. He notes that there is currently a single case report out of China that shows coronavirus transmission wherein the original carrier of the virus showed no coronavirus symptoms.

But as of now, an infected person is probably most contagious once their coronavirus symptoms have started, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How can you tell the difference between coronavirus symptoms and other cold or flu symptoms?

The bad news: Unless you get a lab test, you can't really distinguish between coronavirus COVID-19 and the typical cold or flu, explains Dr. Zipkin.

Seriously though, don't panic. "While we can't readily distinguish between COVID-19 and [other] cold or flu symptoms, it is important to remember that COVID-19 requires exposure to a person who has the infection already," notes Dr. Zipkin. Translation: You can't just become spontaneously infected with the coronavirus if you haven't come in contact with someone who already has it.

The one potential caveat: contaminated surfaces. A recent review of 22 studies on human coronavirus strains (including the one that causes COVID-19) suggests that these viruses may linger on surfaces like metal, glass, or plastic for up to nine days (that is, until those surfaces are disinfected). Meaning, if someone with coronavirus touches a metal, glass, or plastic surface just before you do, and you put your unwashed hands in your mouth, nose, or eyes, there's a chance you could become infected with the virus. However, touching contaminated surfaces is not thought to be the main form of coronavirus transmission, according to the CDC. (See: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)

How is coronavirus diagnosed and treated?

At this time, there are no specific treatments for COVID-19 (current treatments only offer symptomatic relief), nor are there any readily available vaccines for this novel coronavirus, according to the CDC.

Even being properly diagnosed with COVID-19 is still tricky, says Dr. Shipley. "Many urgent care centers and even hospital laboratories do not currently have testing capability at this time," he explains.

With that in mind, prevention is your best bet at this point. That includes getting your flu shot, practicing good hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene (i.e. wash your hands regularly, and try to cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue), and avoiding close contact with anyone showing coronavirus symptoms or signs of respiratory illness in general, explains Dr. Shipley. (BTW, here's why you don't need one of those N95 respirator masks to protect against the coronavirus.)

Experts also recommend staying hydrated and well-rested, eating nutritious foods, getting regular exercise, and staying home if you feel ill. As Dr. Zipkin says: "Everyone should remain vigilant to decrease the spread of this infection, both for the miserable symptoms it can cause even in healthy people, as well as the severe consequences that can result if spread to more susceptible members of our communities."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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Comments (1)

Anonymous
March 4, 2020
Most of this dust-up over COVID-19 is political and sensational. However, the ONLY time the illness is SERIOUS is if a patient is IMMUNE COMPROMISED, older or very young, and gets no medical support. For people in good health, on no immune-suppressing medication and having a place to endure the symptoms, it's LESS than the Flu. Of interest in the article was the omission of one of Flu's most depressing symptoms -- aches that make one wonder if they'll survive, accompanied by shivering chills. So....eat well. Stay away from sneezers and coughers (unless they're your responsibility), and WASH your hands often. You'll hurt for awhile, but you'll be fine.