FYI: It can look a lot like the flu.

By Leah Groth
Updated April 28, 2020
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Since it was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has become a global health issue. As of April 3, it has sickened more than one million people and claimed more than 50,000 deaths worldwide, reports the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Clearly, the coronavirus has caused quite a panic worldwide. To make matters worse, public health officials now recognize that people may spread the disease before they become symptomatic. "This is a game changer," William Schaffner, MD, a longtime adviser to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said per CNN. "It means the infection is much more contagious than we originally thought. This is worse than we anticipated."

The situation is rapidly evolving and, at this moment, "poses a serious public health crisis," says the CDC. While different parts the country are experiencing different levels of COVID-19 infection, no state is immune. Indeed, every state in the nation has reported cases of the new coronavirus to the CDC, with serious outbreaks in large population centers. Here are the core symptoms to watch out for when it comes to the new coronavirus and how it differs from other illnesses.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

First of all, coronaviruses are a group of different viruses—and the symptoms of the current newsworthy strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, differ from other coronavirus strains.

Three symptoms—fever, cough, and shortness of breath—were initially recognized as core signs of COVID-19, but it has become increasingly clear that the signs and symptoms of this illness can be quite diverse. The CDC recently expanded the list of symptoms that people need to watch out for to include six additional indicators: chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. The agency also clarified that shortness of breath can also mean "difficulty breathing."

The signs and symptoms  of COVID-19 look a lot like the flu. Common flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, and headache, says the CDC.

Among hospitalized patients with. the new coronavirus, fever is the most common symptom, according to CDC interim guidance for doctors who are managing COVID-19 patients. Complaints of muscle pain or fatigue are also common among these patients. Less often, they report headache, sore throat, productive cough, or GI symptoms, like diarrhea.

How does coronavirus progress?

The CDC explains that symptoms appear to arise in as few as 2 days after exposure or as long as 14 days after. According to an analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine, this estimated timeframe is similar to the incubation period of  SARS and MERS, which other types of coronaviruses.

However, the progression of COVID-19 varies widely. Initially, some people have very mild symptoms, like headache or low-grade fever, while others experience no symptoms at all. The CDC cites several studies documenting presence of the virus in people who never develop symptoms—the so-called asymptomatic—and in those who have yet to develop symptoms—known as pre-symptomatic.

Among people who develop severe disease, the CDC warns healthcare providers of "the potential for some patients to rapidly deteriorate one week after illness onset."

If you think you've been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing fever or other symptoms, such as cough or difficulty breathing, call your healthcare provider, the CDC suggests. Anyone who is having trouble breathing or experiencing other concerning symptoms, like chest pain, confusion, or bluish lips, ought to seek immediate medical care.

How can you protect yourself from coronavirus?

The WHO suggests a variety of safety measures to take to keep yourself safe from the novel coronavirus, which include hand and respiratory hygiene.

First and foremost, it's advised that people frequently clean their hands with soap and water or by using alcohol-based hand gel. It's also important that, when coughing and sneezing, people always cover their mouth and nose with their elbow or a tissue (and then immediately throw that used tissue away and wash their hands). People should also try their best to avoid others who have a fever or cough.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, because if the virus is on your hands, it can enter your body through your mucus membranes and make yourself sick, says WHO.

It's also important to maintain "social distancing"—leaving a buffer zone of about 6 feet between people to prevent person-to-person transmission, the CDC recommends.

Clean and disinfect any surfaces your touch daily, the CDC adds. And, by all means, if you are sick, stay home and recover. If you develop serious symptoms, call your healthcare provider.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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