Here's How to Tell If That Sneeze Is Coronavirus, the Flu or Just a Cold
With the number of coronavirus cases rapidly spreading across the U.S., it’s only natural to wonder if every cough or sneeze might be a symptom of the highly contagious respiratory illness.
Because this new coronavirus, COVID-19, is in the same family of viruses as the common cold, the two share similar symptoms. And the body’s reaction to the flu — fever, body shakes — also occurs with COVID-19. The similarities make the virus hard to detect. Here’s what to keep in mind.
COVID-19 vs a cold
At first, COVID-19 will seem very similar to a cold, with coughing and sneezing.
“You start to see a cold, and the reason it’s called a cold is because you don’t have a fever,” Dr. William Haseltine, infectious disease expert and Chair and President of ACCESS Health International, tells PEOPLE.
The initial symptoms are all upper respiratory, much like a cold. But if coughs begin to move down the chest, into the lower respiratory region, that’s when people should be concerned. This is a sign that it could be coronavirus.
“If it feels like it’s in your chest, and then deeper in your chest, that’s when it’s quite serious,” Haseltine says. “That’s when your body starts reacting to it. Your body overreacts to it and creates the damage in your lungs, and that’s when it’s the most serious. The moment it moves from a light cold to a chest cold, you’ve got to go see a doctor, immediately.”
But, Haseltine cautions, people should call their doctor or hospital first before going over to get tested and treated. That reduces the chance that an infected person will spread COVID-19 to other people in transit or at a doctor’s office. “In a serious case, though, call an ambulance,” he adds.
For “most” people, 80 percent, the symptoms will be mild, closer to a cold.
“But about 15 percent of people will get a serious chest infection, and some of those are quite critically ill, and some people die from that,” Haseltine says.
COVID-19 vs the flu
As COVID-19 progresses, the symptoms will start to look like the flu, which is still circulating at this time of the year. Infected people will start running a fever and experience fatigue and body aches — much like with the flu. Both coronavirus and the flu can lead to pneumonia, in severe cases. The only way to tell the difference is with a test. While flu tests are readily available, tests for COVID-19 are still difficult to find, largely due to a delay in available testing kits from the government.
“When you go to the doctor, the first thing they’re likely to do is to give you a flu test to determine whether or not you’ve got the flu. And if you’ve got the flu, then it’s not this,” Dr. Robert Norton, professor of public health at Auburn University, tells PEOPLE.
When do symptoms start?
Most people will start to develop symptoms two to 14 days after contracting the coronavirus.
Can people have it without showing symptoms?
Yes — absolutely, says Haseltine. Some people are carriers for the virus and have it without developing symptoms. And, worryingly, people who are asymptomatic can still spread COVID-19, which is why social distancing now is essential to slow the disease’s spread.
Who is most at risk?
“Everyone has the same chance” of contracting the virus, says Haseltine. But certain demographics are more at risk of developing a severe case.
“People who are elderly are at risk, because everyone who is older has a weaker immune system. Anybody who has an underlying lung condition — serious asthma, a heavy smoker. Anybody who is immunosuppressed, because they’re undergoing cancer treatment, organ transplantation or treatment with some of the newer drugs for arthritis. Any of those people are at higher risk,” he says.
“But it can kill younger people, if they get a severe lung infection. Younger people should not think they’re immune.”
What can the average person do to slow the spread?
“Stay home,” says Haseltine. “And be as hygienic as possible.”
“People need to continue to be vigilant, assiduously practice good hand washing hygiene, cover nose and mouth if sneeze or cough, self-isolate if they are showing mild symptoms and seek medical attention with their local health care provider, if they have signs of respiratory infections,” adds Norton.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.