FYI: It looks a lot like the flu.

By Leah Groth
Updated February 24, 2020

Since it was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has become a global health issue. According to the most recent information provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), the outbreak is responsible for more than 79,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 2,618 deaths—most of which occurred in China—worldwide. Here in the US, the CDC has confirmed 14 cases of COVID-19.

Clearly, the Wuhan coronavirus has caused quite a panic worldwide. To make matters worse, China’s health minister Ma Xiaowei made a startling statement recently, claiming that people can 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, said per CNN. "It means the infection is much more contagious than we originally thought. This is worse than we anticipated."

While it's important to know that the immediate health risk to the general American public is considered "low" at this time, per the CDC, the government agency is still taking proactive preparedness precautious—and it doesn't hurt for the public to at least be aware of what the symptoms of coronavirus look like, just in case. And considering the US is in the midst of a pretty nasty cold and flu season already, here's what to watch out for when it comes to the new Wuhan coronavirus, and how it differs from other illnesses.

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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. According to the CDC, there are three main symptoms of the current illness: Fever, cough, and shortness of breath—all symptoms similar to the common cold or flu. 

The CDC explains that “at this time” symptoms appear to arise in as few as 2 days after exposure or as long as 14 days after. “This is based on what has been seen previously as the incubation period of MERS viruses [another type of coronavirus].” Even scarier, is that some people with the virus show “little to no symptoms,” while others fall “severely ill” and die. 

"What we know is it causes pneumonia and then doesn't respond to antibiotic treatment, which is not surprising, but then in terms of mortality, SARS [another type of coronavirus] kills 10% of the individuals," Scientist Leo Poon, a virologist at the School of Public Health at The University of Hong Kong, who first decoded the virus, told CNN recently. 

Because symptoms of COVID-19 are so similar to those of the cold or flu, it's important not to jump to conclusions—especially if you live in the US, since, per the CDC, this strain of coronavirus hasn't been spread from person-to-person within the US yet (all infected people have recently traveled to Wuhan, China). Still, if you are experiencing fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests seeking medical care early, sharing any previous travel history with your healthcare provider. 

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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, and safe food practices.

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 throwing that used tissue away and washing their hands). People should also try their best to avoid others who have a fever or cough.

According to the WHO—and this information is less pertinent to those in the US—when visiting live markets in areas currently experiencing cases of novel coronavirus, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals. Also, avoid consuming raw or undercooked animal products. Raw meat, milk or animal organs should be handled with care, to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, as per good food safety practices.

Still, it's important to keep in mind that, while the news cycle surrounding this new Wuhan coronavirus can seem scary, the CDC maintains that the risk to the US general population is low at this time.

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