Here’s How to Tell If You Have the Coronavirus, and When You Should See a Doctor

March 5, 2020 Updated: March 5, 2020
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With the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak spreading across the United States, it’s prompted a number of fears. However, suffering from a fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other respiratory problems doesn’t always mean you have been infected with the mysterious new disease.

The symptoms of the coronavirus such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, and runny nose are similar to those of the common cold or influenza. However, COVID-19 appears to be more deadly—namely among older people and those with underlying health problems—than the flu.

The virus can cause pneumonia, and people who suffer from it say they have breathing difficulties and a cough. In severe instances, there have been reports of organ failure and many of those who have died were in poor health or elderly. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), symptoms can range from mild to severe. And some people do not report any symptoms at all.

The agency recommends the following: “Call your healthcare professional if you feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19, or if you live in or have recently traveled from an area with ongoing spread of COVID-19. Your healthcare professional will work with your state’s public health department and CDC to determine if you need to be tested for COVID-19.”

Individuals who are experiencing these symptoms but can manage them with over-the-counter drugs, water, and by just staying at home should just continue doing so, according to some experts. If these drugs are effective, it might just be the flu.

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People walk through Manhattan with surgical masks as fears of the coronavirus spreading through the United States increase in New York City on March 4, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“If you feel well enough that if it weren’t for coronavirus you wouldn’t see a doctor, don’t see a doctor,” Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, commented to The Washington Post.

So far, in the United States, there have been at least 164 confirmed cases across about 15 states, according to Johns Hopkins’ website. Health officials have warned that many more people are likely to get infected. Of the cases, some are travel-related—meaning that someone has traveled to an outbreak area such as China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, or Italy—while some have spread person-to-person, and some were evacuated from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess ship.  So far, at least 11 people have died from the virus.

One should call their primary-care doctor if they have a cough and a fever, said Maria Raven, chief of emergency medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Those with a fever that doesn’t stop, weakness, shortness of breath, lethargy, or weakness should talk to a doctor or another health-care professional, said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, according to the Post. Adalja said those symptoms are signs of pneumonia.

Chinese vegetable vendors wear protective masks
Chinese vegetable vendors wear protective masks as they wait for customers at a local market in Beijing, China, on March 4, 2020. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Adalja said that if one decides to go to a doctor or hospital, they should call ahead and tell them about any potential respiratory problems.

The CDC recommends avoiding all non-essential travel to China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. Japan is at a level two alert, while Hong Kong is at a level one watch.

Health experts in various states have also said that people should avoid close-contact with a person who appears to be sick, coughing, or sneezing. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, mouth, or face and cover your cough and sneezes, they have recommended. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Currently, the CDC does not recommend that Americans purchase and wear face masks unless one has COVID-19 or is displaying symptoms.

The COVID-19 virus, which is in the same family of coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS, is believed to have emerged in Wuhan, located in China’s Hubei Province late last year. In China, it’s believed that tens of thousands of people have been infected, while critics have accused the ruling Chinese Communist Party of imposing draconian controls and censorship.