Now officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, SARS-CoV-2 has spread across much of the planet, even impacting a research project being undertaken in the Arctic. This highly contagious disease poses a particular difficulty in that it remains symptomless for on average the first five days of infection, meaning affected individuals continue to go about their daily lives without knowing they’re carrying the virus.
As a respiratory illness, COVID-19, the name of the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, mimics many of the symptoms of influenza, known as the flu, and rhinovirus, known as the common cold. For many infected individuals, the symptoms will also be mild, with a persistent cough, high temperature, and shortness of breath listed as the most common. The shortage of testing kits is a concern worldwide, which is why many countries are only testing for the illness in patients who require hospitalization. This means many who only become mildly unwell will never know if they’ve had coronavirus or another form of respiratory illness. Given the time of year, common illnesses such as a cold are rife at the moment, so how can you tell if you’ve got coronavirus, the flu, or a cold?
Under the current advice at the time of writing, the two most indicative symptoms of early-stage coronavirus are a new, persistent cough and a fever. A fever is defined as a body temperature above the normal range of 36-37°C (98-100°F) and can be ascertained with a shop-bought thermometer. It’s not thought that the coronavirus causes a blocked or runny nose, so if you have mild symptoms including a blocked nose, it’s more likely you have the common cold. That said, current guidelines are to self-isolate if you experience a dry, persistent cough or a fever, so it’s still best to avoid leaving the house if you’re experiencing these symptoms. There’s currently no vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, so for mild symptoms, it's best to treat at home using over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol to manage the symptoms. More advanced cases can cause significant lung injury meaning severely affected patients require hospital treatment to support their pulmonary system through the worst stages of the disease.
Flu is an annual contagious respiratory infection that causes deaths each year. It’s fatal in about 0.1 percent of cases, which is a relatively low number compared to coronavirus (currently thought to be fatal in 2-3 percent of cases), though inadequate testing in some countries such as America may be skewing this figure higher than it actually is. Flu poses an epidemiological puzzle each year as it’s constantly mutating, meaning vaccinations for previous strains of flu are ineffective on novel strains of the illness. There’s no cure for the illness though vaccinations can prevent infections, and certain strains such as H1N1 can be hampered with Tamiflu.
The most common symptoms of flu are a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or blocked nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue and, in some but not all cases, vomiting and diarrhea. Flu is usually quite a significant illness that prevents people from going to work, so if you’re still able to go about your daily routine as normal, it’s more likely you have some form of cold or throat infection.
The common cold is a gradually developing illness that causes a blocked or runny nose as its most prominent symptoms and can often lead to a loss of taste and smell as a result. It usually comes alongside a host of unpleasant symptoms, including a sore throat, headaches, muscle aches, coughing, sneezing, a raised temperature, and increased pressure in the ears and face as a result of blocked eustachian tubes. Colds can vary from mild to severe and linger on for some time. Fortunately, the symptoms can be managed at home so if you’re unlucky enough to be struck down with a cold, it’s a good opportunity for some warm beverages and a box set marathon.
If you’re concerned you might have coronavirus and are struggling with the symptoms, it’s always best to contact your local health services by telephone first. Do not walk into a doctor’s office or hospital or take a taxi or public transport if you suspect you have contracted the disease. While it’s likely many people in affected countries will contract the illness, slowing the rate of spread is a vital step in supporting already over-stretched health services through the ongoing crisis. Many are saying the coronavirus is basically the same as seasonal flu but this is not true.
In particularly badly affected regions such as Lombardy in Italy, hospitals have run out of ICU beds and extremely difficult decisions are having to be made by healthcare professionals to decide which patients can be given treatment. Even if you are young and don’t suffer from any health conditions, you have a vital role to play in protecting more vulnerable individuals from the illness.
Find out what SARS-CoV-2 does to the body according to health professionals.