How to Tell the Coronavirus from Colds, Flu, or Allergies
We know what it’s like: You feel a little tickle in your throat, sneeze once or twice, or are maybe a little short of breath after chasing your child around, and you immediately start to wonder, “Is this it? Have I got it?”
“It,” of course, being the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Because its symptoms mimic so many other common illnesses, our family practice doctors want to help you dial down the nervousness a little by pointing out the differences between the various symptoms and what you can do about them.
If you have seasonal allergies, you probably already know the typical symptoms: itchy, watery eyes, runny or stuffy nose, and sneezing. Allergies are typically confined to the eyes and nose, and almost never produce a fever or shortness of breath (unless you have asthma). Symptoms of allergies tend to be relatively mild, and when they’re pollen-related, occur at the same time every year.
If you are allergic to other typical allergens such as animal dander or dust, your symptoms will vary according to your exposure to them. Such allergies can also induce a cough. But again, if you have such allergies, you probably have them on a regular basis and are aware of the symptoms.
Cold symptoms are similar to allergies, although a cold can also produce symptoms that resemble the flu, including body aches and lethargy. Rarely, a cold can also be accompanied by a fever. Cold symptoms tend to come on gradually, peak for several days, and resolve gradually over a few more days. The total experience generally lasts for ten days to two weeks.
We’ve all had the flu at one time or another, so we’re familiar with the symptoms: dry cough, fever, fatigue, body aches, chills, and—if it’s severe enough—just generally feeling rotten. Unlike the common cold, flu symptoms come on suddenly; you can feel fine in the morning and lousy by dinnertime.
Flu, as we’ve said before, can and does kill. Often, it’s not the flu itself that is so deadly, but the complications—including pneumonia—that can result from it. To date, 20,000 Americans have died from this current season’s flu outbreak.
When it comes to symptoms, the coronavirus can have it all: dry coughing, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion, body aches and pains, lethargy, fever, chills, and shortness of breath. It’s also important to note that many people have very mild symptoms or none at all. This is what makes it so difficult to diagnose without proper testing, and why it appears to spread so rapidly. Asymptomatic individuals can still pass the virus along to others.
In general, however, the main symptoms of COVID-19 infection are:
- dry cough
- shortness of breath
And, unlike with the flu, the symptoms develop more slowly over several days, perhaps starting with feeling unusually tired, as Tom Hanks recently reported. That symptom prompted him and his wife Rita Wilson to be tested; both learned they are infected.
With a cold or flu, the symptoms come on at approximately the same time that a person becomes contagious to others. With COVID-19, it takes several days after exposure for symptoms to appear, but the person appears to be able to infect others before then. We’ll know better when widespread testing becomes available, but in the meantime, this is why it’s vital to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. You could have it without knowing and be infecting others.
What to do
Remember, if you contract the flu, we have prescription medications that can treat it (not antibiotics, which are useless against any type of virus). But these drugs must be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be effective. We still don’t yet know whether they are effective against the coronavirus, although scientists are researching these and other possible treatments.
With either the flu or the coronavirus, if you don’t begin feeling better after a few days in bed, or if your symptoms are worsening, call us. If you’re running a fever above 100.4 degrees and are having difficulty breathing, let us know immediately. This is an emergency.
Or call the Florida Health Department’s special COVID-19 hotline number (1-866-779-6121), which is staffed 24 hours a day. Do not go to the emergency room, where you might infect others or pick up something from them.
People at especially high risk include those ages 60 and over, pregnant women, and those with an underlying health condition such as diabetes, asthma, heart or lung disease, or with a compromised immune system (such as anyone receiving chemotherapy).
Of course, we’re here to answer your questions at any time, so feel free to contact us.