How to tell if you have a cold, the flu, or coronavirus — and what to do about it


Practicing proper respiratory etiquette can help stop the spread of the coronavirus. This includes wearing a face mask if you have one, sneezing or coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or the crook of you arm, and not standing or speaking too close to others.

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Practicing proper respiratory etiquette can help stop the spread of the coronavirus. This includes wearing a face mask if you have one, sneezing or coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or the crook of you arm,

… more

Photo: Getty Images / EyeEm

Photo: Getty Images / EyeEm

Practicing proper respiratory etiquette can help stop the spread of the coronavirus. This includes wearing a face mask if you have one, sneezing or coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or the crook of you arm, and not standing or speaking too close to others.

less

Practicing proper respiratory etiquette can help stop the spread of the coronavirus. This includes wearing a face mask if you have one, sneezing or coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or the crook of you arm,

… more

Photo: Getty Images / EyeEm

How to tell if you have a cold, the flu, or coronavirus — and what to do about it

You’re showing signs of illness — a cough, runny nose and fever — how do you know whether you have a cold, the flu or COVID-19, the new coronavirus that originated in China and is spreading around globe?

The answer is that it’s difficult to tell for sure unless you have been tested by a medical professional.

Chances are, however, that you don’t have it. While there have been 11 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in San Antonio, all are among people who were evacuated here from elsewhere, including Wuhan, the Chinese city where the disease first emerged, and the Princess cruise ship where passengers were quarantined after several fell ill.

So far, there have been no community transmissions of the disease, said Dr. Anita Kurian, assistant director of communicable disease with Metro Health District.

“Even the patient who went to the mall last week had been asymptomatic for more than a week,” she said, meaning the woman hadn’t shown any signs of having an upper respiratory infection, including cough, fever and shortness of breath. “She also didn’t have close, prolonged contact with anyone else, so the risk of transmission is very, very low.”

The most common symptoms of coronavirus are cough, fever and shortness of breath. In some cases, the virus causes severe respiratory illness.

It’s difficult to tell if someone actually has the coronavirus, according to Dr. Lee Atkinson-McEvoy, a pediatric doctor at UC San Francisco. “They’re seeing people who have milder disease, so just a cough and runny nose, but no fever. Some people who test positive are asymptomatic.”

Coronaviruses are among a group of viruses that cause the “common cold,” and there are seven known ones that can infect humans. Four of these (229E, HKU1, OC43 and NL63) are seasonal and typically cause mild respiratory infection — fever, cough, nasal congestion, and headache, according to Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor of laboratory medicine and infectious disease at UC San Francisco.

“The remaining three coronaviruses (MERS, SARS, COVID-19) are the result of recent zoonotic (animal-to-human) transmission events, and although they are also associated with mild respiratory symptoms, infection can progress to cause severe, life-threatening pneumonia,” Dr. Chiu shared in an email.

COVID-19 is the most recently discovered coronavirus and was unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China in December 2019. To date, a vaccination or antiviral medication isn’t available to treat it, according to the World Health Organization. People with serious illness should be hospitalized.

The flu, a.k.a. seasonal influenza, is similar to COVID-19. It also causes respiratory infection and can also lead severe pneumonia.

“The symptoms between common cold viruses, COVID-19, and the flu overlap significantly, at least in the early stages of illness,” wrote Chiu. “Death from coronavirus in patients with pneumonia is thought to be a combination of direct damage of the viral infection to the airways (bronchiolitis and/or pneumonia), an abnormal immune response (“cytokine storm”), and secondary bacterial infections. This is similar to the way people die from flu.”

With the flu, the elderly, very young, or those with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk for severe disease. The current data available and research on the novel coronavirus suggest the elderly and immunocompromised are more susceptible to serious complications and children are at a lower risk, said Atkinson-McEvoy.

The latest estimates based on the reported number of cases and deaths around the world suggest that the death rate from COVID-19 infection is about 2 percent, but this may change as the epidemic progresses. For comparison, SARS had a death rate of about 10 percent and seasonal influenza has a death rate of 0.1 percent.

That said, Dr. Lee Riley, a UC Berkeley professor and chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology, adds mortality rate is frequently higher at the beginning of epidemics because “we don’t know how to deal with them.”

“We have vaccines for influenza so this contributes to its lower rate, but if we didn’t have the vaccines, the mortality rates for influenza would be higher than 0.1 percent,” Riley said. “Also, mortality rates for influenza varies according to the virus strain causing the epidemic, which changes every year. So, it’s too simplistic to compare mortality rates of two very different types of virus infections.”

Anyone who suspects they might have the coronavirus should first call their family physician for an appointment, Kurian said. All local doctors should have received a communications from Metro Health detailing the protocol for treating patients who might be infected.

“If they don’t have a family doctor, they should go to an urgent care center, such as a hospital emergency room or community clinic,” she said. “But call first to tell them you’re coming. And when you get there, practice proper respiratory etiquette.”

This includes wearing a face mask if you have one, sneezing or coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or the crook of you arm, and not standing or speaking too close to others.

While a test for the virus is available, for now it’s only being given to those who either have had prolonged contact with someone with a confirmed case of the disease or who have upper respiratory infection symptoms that are so severe they require hospitalization.

Although Metro Health recently received test kits for the coronovirus, it will take two to three weeks to validate them. Until then, all tests are being sent to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labs, with results available in 48 to 72 hours.

Anyone else with questions can call Metro Health directly at 210-207-5779.

Richard A. Marini is a features writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | rmarini@express-news.net | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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