Coronavirus symptoms are easily mistaken for the flu. Here's how to know whether you should get tested for COVID-19.

By Renee Cherry
March 10, 2020

There's never a right time to get sick—but now feels like an especially inopportune moment. The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has been dominating the news cycle, and no one wants to deal with the possibility that they've been infected.

If you're experiencing symptoms, you might be wondering what your first move should be. Just because you have a cough and sore throat doesn't necessarily mean you have the coronavirus, so you might be tempted to pretend nothing's amiss. On the other hand, it's important that people who actually have the novel coronavirus get properly diagnosed, relieve their symptoms, and follow health-care experts' protocols for quarantining, if necessary.

Not sure how to play it? Here's what to do if you think you have the coronavirus. (Related: Can Hand Sanitizer Actually Kill the Coronavirus?)

What should I do if I have a sore throat and cough RN?

Typical coronavirus symptoms—fever, cough, and shortness of breath—overlap with flu symptoms, so you won't know which illness you have without getting tested. If you're experiencing mild versions of those symptoms, you won't necessarily need medical attention, but it doesn't hurt to call your health-care provider for guidance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone who A) has a fever B) thinks they might have been exposed to COVID-19 and C) notices their symptoms worsen call their doctor ASAP. Symptoms like shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, dizziness, weakness, and high fever warrant prompt medical attention, says Robert Amler, M.D., dean of New York Medical College's School of Health Sciences and former chief medical officer at the CDC.

That said, you don't necessarily need to make an in-person appointment with your doc ASAP. Giving your doctor a heads up over the phone, rather than stopping by their office for a surprise visit, will give them a chance to assess your situation and, if warranted, take steps to isolate you from other people waiting to get checked out, says Mark Graban, director of communication and technology for the Healthcare Value Network. "The situation is fluid and changing quickly," he explains. "In some cases, hospitals are immediately giving masks to patients who have respiratory issues just in case it might be COVID-19. Patients are often being put into an isolation room to be safe. Some hospitals are setting up mobile triage centers to keep respiratory patients separated from those with other emergency room needs." (Related: What Is the COVID-19 Coronavirus Mortality Rate?)

Once you've gotten further instructions from your doc, the CDC advises staying home unless you're going to a medical appointment. "Quarantine is for 14 days, typically at home in a room or rooms that are separate from the rest of the household," explains Dr. Amler.

Finally, if you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and are actively experiencing coronavirus symptoms, the CDC recommends that you wear a face mask around other people and wash your hands like you're modeling for a hand-washing PSA (though the latter is something everyone should practice 24/7, coronavirus outbreak or not). There's no treatment for COVID-19, but nasal sprays, fluids, and fever-relief medication (when applicable) can make waiting it out more comfortable, adds Dr. Amler.

How long does it take to get coronavirus test results?

First off, not every hospital lab is stocked with coronavirus test kits. Instead, many health-care providers have to send cotton swabs out to be tested, notes Graban. "It's currently a very specialized test that is being run by the CDC or a number of centralized labs—like state labs in many states or some private labs—that have the coronavirus test kits and capabilities at the moment," he explains. "It seems like more of a distribution problem than a skills gap in the hospital labs. Many hospitals are currently working to get this testing capability in-house." (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)

So, how long does it take to get coronavirus test results once you do get tested? Typically, samples get overnighted to a lab, and once they reach the lab, results are ready within a day or two, according to CNN.

If you're experiencing coronavirus symptoms, first of all, don't panic. While some reports suggest that the coronavirus COVID-19 mortality rate may be as high as 3 percent (for context, the flu mortality rate in the U.S. usually doesn't exceed 0.1 percent), it's likely that that number is inflated, since not every person who's contracted COVID-19 has necessarily checked into a hospital (meaning their data isn't being accounted for when calculating the mortality rate). Plus, the number of global deaths from the novel coronavirus (currently at about 4,000) is still relatively low compared to the hundreds of thousands of global deaths caused by the flu each year.

With all of that in mind, if you think you're experiencing coronavirus symptoms, experts say your best bet is to act like you have the virus, even if you have yet to take a test. When in doubt, follow the CDC's recs to self-quarantine, wear a mask around others, and check in with your doctor, even if your symptoms seem mild.

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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