As the reality of the coronavirus sets in, experts identify the red flags to look for—and the key steps to take if you think you’ve been infected
First things first: COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, is not a glorified case of the flu. The infections are caused by two different viruses. And from what we’ve learned in the short time since the new coronavirus was discovered, COVID-19 is much more severe and deadlier than the flu.
What has everyone so confused, unfortunately, is that the flu and COVID-19 share awfully similar symptoms. To help tease the signs apart, we asked two infectious disease experts to spell out what’s known so far about COVID-19 symptoms.
They also outline an action plan to use if you come down with any of the signs. (Spoiler: Fight any impulse to make a beeline for the ER.)
Symptom #1: Fever
Based on what’s known from the earliest patients stricken by COVID-19, spiking a fever is typically the first sign, according to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO). Fever is your body’s go-to immune response at the first sign of danger, explains Aimee Ferraro, Ph.D., a faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Public Health program, and a researcher on infectious and vector-borne diseases.
Once the coronavirus has entered your body (your nose, mouth, and eyes are the main entry points), its viral particles travel quickly to the back of the nasal passages and into the mucous membranes at the back of the throat. The spiked proteins on the surface of coronavirus hook onto those membranes and then enter into your cells, says Dr. Ferraro.
Think of it like a stowaway sneaking on board a ship by using a grappling hook to hoist himself over the side. In that scenario, a fever is like a sentry on guard duty, trying to protect the ship by calling on everyone else to help.
“The virus hijacks the cells and starts replicating, which triggers an immune response,” says Dr. Ferraro. “Fever plays a vital role in the immune response, as it helps certain types of immune cells work better.”
Symptom #2: Dry Cough
Because COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, it primarily affects the upper respiratory tract in its early stages, according to Manish Trivedi, M.D., director of the division of infectious diseases at AtlantiCare, a health system in New Jersey.
It’s no surprise then, that coughing—particularly a dry cough—is another top sign. Some 68 percent of the first COVID-19 patients in China reported a dry cough, according to the WHO report.
One reason detection has been so difficult, says Dr. Trivedi, is that there are so many overlapping symptoms with the flu and even the common cold. Most people appear to fall ill between five to six days after exposure. And then symptoms can show up anywhere between two and 14 days later.
Symptom #3: Shortness of Breath
Difficulty breathing is a more advanced symptom, and it’s usually why people choose to call for medical help, according to Ferraro.
People with more severe cases of COVID-19 can develop pneumonia, and experience respiratory distress because of mucus accumulating in the lungs, she says.
That limits the amount of oxygen that gets into the bloodstream, and makes it harder for the body to remove carbon dioxide—a natural waste product of breathing. People with severe COVID-19 may need to be placed on a ventilator or given supplemental oxygen.
Symptom #4: Sore Throat
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is asking people to be on alert for the top three signs—fever, coughing, and shortness of breath—it’s worth pointing out that the first COVID-19 patients in China reported a wider range of early signs.
Close to 14 percent experienced a sore throat, for example. Headaches, chills, and fatigue were other symptoms.
“We are learning more about this strain each day and gaining a better understanding of how people react to it,” says Dr. Trivedi. “But so far, symptoms appear to mimic those of the common cold or flu.”
Symptom #5: Nausea
A smaller number of patients also experienced nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
It’s this wide range of familiar symptoms that makes the new coronavirus such a tricky one to deal with, says Dr. Trivedi. People (understandably) aren’t sure if they should ride it out like the common cold or flu, or race to call their doctor.
The truth is, you’ll want to do a little of both. Read on to learn what the experts recommend.
What to Do If You’re Sick
If you have mild symptoms like a slight rise in temperature and a tickle in your throat, their advice is to stay home and separate yourself from other people. [link to self-quarantine article]
If you feel like you need to be seen by a doctor, call first and talk to your primary care provider or health care facility to discuss your symptoms. That way, you can be directed to the right location or advised to stay at home, says Dr. Trivedi. This also helps minimize the spread of the coronavirus and other viruses.
In addition, the White House declaring a national emergency on March 13 has opened up funding and access for health care providers across the country to take advantage of telehealth tools, such as a virtual doctor visit via video or phone, and drive-through testing centers.
If you are struggling to breathe or having chest pains, call 911. Be very specific about your symptoms.
Will You Get Tested?
Based on your symptoms and whether you’ve been exposed to a person confirmed to have COVID-19—or you’ve recently traveled to a community where infection rates are high—a doctor will determine if you should be tested for COVID-19.
The test involves swabbing inside the nose to collect cells. Your sample is then sent to a lab, and results currently take about 24 to 72 hours. On March 13, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued Emergency Use Authorizations to Roche and Thermo Fisher for new nasal swab tests with same-day results. The White House said this will make 1.4 million tests available this week and five million within a month.
While you wait for your results, be sure to stay in contact with your doctor, especially if your symptoms start to get worse. Dr. Trivedi suggests that if you’re home and not feeling well, treat it like any other serious illness—get plenty of rest, eat healthy, stay hydrated, and be gentle with yourself.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.