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Do You Have Covid-19 or Something Else?


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Do You Have Covid-19 or Something Else?

Photo: ShutterstockAlthough it seems like the world’s on pause, all the colds and flus and other respiratory illnesses out there haven’t read the memo. If you find yourself getting sick and are trying to determine whether you’ve got the coronavirus or some other respiratory illness, there are some ways to try to narrow it down,…

Do You Have Covid-19 or Something Else?

Illustration for article titled Do You Have COVID-19 or Something Else?

Photo: Shutterstock

Although it seems like the world’s on pause, all the colds and flus and other respiratory illnesses out there haven’t read the memo. If you find yourself getting sick and are trying to determine whether you’ve got the coronavirus or some other respiratory illness, there are some ways to try to narrow it down, but with some caveats.

People’s bodies respond differently to illnesses. It’s also possible to be sick with two or more things at once, making your symptom picture unclear. We are still in the very early stages of learning about COVID-19, so there’s still a lot of uncertainty. And the most important caveat of all: only a medical professional is qualified to give a medical opinion on your specific illness, especially until more information becomes available.

That said, we can look at symptoms of the coronavirus, the common cold, the flu and allergies and see the similarities and differences.

The CDC has listed the symptoms of coronavirus as a fever, cough, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. A WHO-China Joint Mission report based on over 50,000 confirmed cases in China lists more symptoms and breaks down the percentages:

  • fever (87.9%)
  • dry cough (67.7%)
  • fatigue (38.1%)
  • sputum production (33.4%)
  • shortness of breath (18.6%)
  • sore throat (13.9%)
  • headache (13.6%)
  • myalgia or arthralgia (14.8%)
  • chills (11.4%)
  • nausea or vomiting (5.0%)
  • nasal congestion (4.8%)
  • diarrhea (3.7%)
  • hemoptysis (0.9%)
  • conjunctival congestion (0.8%).

If you have a cold, you might have a low-grade fever and a cough, but typically you’ll have other symptoms as well: a runny or stuffy nose, congestion, a sore throat, sneezing, and perhaps body aches, a mild headache or general malaise—symptoms that are far less common in coronavirus.

Symptoms of the flu include a fever and a dry, persistent cough, but also a sore throat, nasal congestion, chill and sweats, body aches, fatigue, and a headache.

Allergy symptoms include itchy eyes, sneezing, and a runny or stuffy nose, and sometimes cough, fatigue, and a sore throat.

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If you do not have a fever, you are more likely to have a cold or allergies than the coronavirus. And though shortness of breath is only present in about 19% of the coronavirus cases described above, it is not a typical symptom of a cold, the flu or allergies.

How bad can symptoms get?

This question requires plenty of caveats as well. It’s possible that there are many mild cases of coronavirus that have not been identified as such. Anecdotally, even some who have been diagnosed have described coronavirus as fairly mild. “My chest feels tight, and I have coughing spells. If I were at home with similar symptoms, I probably would have gone to work as usual,” Carl Goldman, a man in his late 60s who contracted the disease on a cruise, wrote in the Washington Post.

But that doesn’t mean that the symptoms can’t be serious.

Although coronavirus typically starts with a fever and a dry cough and perhaps mild pneumonia, shortness of breath can follow days later in severe cases. More severe symptoms include decreased blood oxygen levels, respiratory failure, septic shock, organ dysfunction or failure, and even death. That’s because difficulty breathing leads to restricted oxygen which major organs need to function.

A COVID-19 infection typically lasts around two weeks, but more severe cases can last three to six weeks. Those who die due to the coronavirus do so between two and eight weeks after their first symptoms.

If you think you have COVID-19

If you think you have symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever and a dry cough, the CDC recommends contacting your healthcare provider—and making sure to get care if your symptoms get worse or if you think it’s an emergency. Shortness of breath while at rest is always a sign to seek immediate medical care.

It’s best to call rather than showing up unannounced for medical care, as hospitals and doctors’ offices will take special measures to protect other patients. You’ll also want to stay six feet away from other people, only leaving your house for medical care. The CDC recommends avoiding ridesharing, cabs or public transit.

Beyond that, follow the recommendations of your doctor, both for your own health and to avoid infecting others. Follow our tips for ke

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