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Coronavirus, Cold, or Flu: A symptom tracker

By Catharina Cheung 7 April 2020

Header image courtesy of Angelina Bambina (Shutterstock)

The world is a scary place right now, and we understand the feelings of helplessness and fear that may be plaguing you as we all wait to see how the coronavirus pandemic plays out. We’re sure a lot of you (us included!) are used to going on WebMD when unwell to self-diagnose our symptoms—only to be told we’ve got incurable cancer.

Given the heightened concerns around COVID-19 right now, googling your own symptoms and scaring yourself to an early grave is not a great idea! For your ease of reference, we’ve spoken to a medical professional and compiled a handy symptom tracker for you to get an initial idea if your stuffy nose or tickly throat is due to coronavirus, the flu, a common cold, or simply allergies. Read on—and don’t panic yet!

Disclaimer: The following is a set of general health guidelines, and not meant to be taken as professional advice—we do not claim to be medical professionals. If you are in doubt regarding your health, seek help from your general practitioner.

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Here is a breakdown of the symptoms present in coronavirus patients, sorted by how commonly it occurs in carriers. Unless otherwise stated, all data symptoms are according to the Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1

Fever

Your immune system’s response to a bacterial or viral invasion, raising your body temperature in order to fight sickness. If your temperature reading is higher than 37.5 degrees Celsius or 100.4 Fahrenheit, then you have a fever. You may also experience chills, aches in your body, sweating, or fatigue. 87.9 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced a fever, but it’s also a common symptom of the flu.

2

Dry cough

A cough where no phlegm or mucus is produced; often accompanied by a sore throat and sometimes shortness of breath. 67.7 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced a dry cough, but it’s also a common symptom of the flu and sometimes occurs with a cold.

3

Loss of taste and smell

Recent research at King’s College revealed that 59 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced a loss of taste and smell. This is also a common symptom of other respiratory infections like a cold.

4

Fatigue

A particularly heavy sort of tiredness in your body. 38.1 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced fatigue; this symptom is also common for the flu and sometimes occurs for colds.

5

Shortness of breath

A feeling of not getting enough air in your lungs, or not being able to catch your breath well. 18.6 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced shortness of breath; it is rarely associated with the flu or common cold.

6

Sore throat

13.9 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced a sore throat; this symptom is also common for colds and sometimes occurs with the flu.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

7

Headache

13.6 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced headaches; this symptom is also common for the flu and sometimes occurs for colds or allergies.

8

Nasal congestion

11.4 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced nasal congestion; this symptom is also common for colds and allergies, and sometimes occurs with the flu.

9

Chills

11.4 percent of coronavirus patients have experienced chills; this symptom is also common with the flu and is often accompanied by a fever.

10

Nausea or vomiting

5 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced nausea or vomiting; this symptom sometimes also occurs with the flu.

11

Diarrhoea

3.7 percent of coronavirus carriers have experienced diarrhoea; this symptom also sometimes occurs with the flu.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

There are also two symptoms that commonly present themselves during this time of year:

1

Sneezing

A common symptom for allergies, often triggered by irritants such as pollen or dust. This is a symptom frequently associated with a cold, and is rarely associated with coronavirus.

2

Itchy eyes

Itching of the eyes occurs when irritating allergens get into the eye, such as pollen or dust. Your eyes may also feel like they’re burning, or be particularly watery. Itchy eyes are a common symptom of allergies, along with sneezing and a runny nose. This is not known to be associated with coronavirus.

“Too Long; Didn’t Read” version

Here is a handy chart for tracking the symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, the common cold, or allergies.

Symptoms for each type of illness

Coronavirus

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

Influenza

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • X
  • Fatigue
  • X
  • Sore throat (sometimes)
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion (sometimes)
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea (sometimes)

Cold

  • X
  • Dry cough (sometimes)
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Fatigue (sometimes)
  • X
  • Sore throat
  • Headache (sometimes)
  • Nasal congestion
  • X
  • X
  • X
  • Sneezing

Allergies

  • X
  • X
  • X
  • X
  • X
  • X
  • Headache (sometimes)
  • Nasal congestion
  • X
  • X
  • X
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy eyes

As you can tell, there are several overlaps between the symptoms of coronavirus and less serious respiratory issues. Just because you’ve got a sore throat and can’t taste food well doesn’t mean you’ve been infected! Experts agree that the most important symptoms to look out for are fever and persistent dry cough. Of course, if you’re feeling under the weather, do seek the advice of a medical professional.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

We’ve spoken to general practitioner Doctor Yeung, who has a private practice in Fortress Hill, regarding general advice on maintaining your health, when you should worry about the possibility of coronavirus infection, and getting tested.

General COVID-19 advice

  • Stop touching your face, especially eyes and nose.
  • It goes without saying since most borders are closed, but avoid travelling, especially to high-risk countries such as the USA, the UK, Europe, Iran, Japan, and South Korea.
  • Always wear face masks to be on the safe side; there are silent carriers who don't display symptoms.
  • Avoid contact with people who have been travelling recently; they should be on a 14-day quarantine anyway.
  • Avoid going to places with clusters of people; you never know if there is a COVID-19 carrier among the crowd.
  • Living and working together with other people is risky. This might well be an unavoidable necessity, so do take care if you're in constant contact with other people.
  • Those who work in sanitation, aviation, and healthcare need to be extra cautious about their hygiene and health.

When should I start to worry?

  • If you have been in contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus;
  • If you have been in a high-risk area;
  • If you are still at work most of time and are in frequent contact with colleagues;
  • If you are exhibiting common symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, severe and dry cough, aches, stomach pains, shortness of breath, or any combination thereof);
  • Or if you are experiencing less common symptoms of COVID-19 (diarrhoea, loss of smell, irritated eyes)

You could potentially have contracted coronavirus, even if you are not displaying symptoms. Monitor your health closely, pay attention to changes in your body, and consider seeking medical advice.

Testing for coronavirus

There are a few ways through which you can get tested for coronavirus infection, with varying accuracy. The deep throat swab is able to collect the highest concentration of virus in sample, measuring approximately 90 percent. Testing with sputum or saliva samples both have an approximate virus concentration of 80 percent. This make sense as coronavirus is a respiratory infection, and the virus will be present and more easily detected in samples taken directly from the respiratory system. Testing with fecal samples, as is available for screening in CUHK, has an approximate virus concentration of 70 percent.

Blood testing is also available, but these are less accurate. Instead of testing directly for the COVID-19 virus, they test for antibodies to the virus. Of course, as with any disease, natural antibodies develop later than the virus itself—generally around five to seven days after infection—so because of the time involved for the test to function properly, blood tests are generally not recommended for if you display symptoms and need to urgently get tested for treatment. 

There are two types of treatment being used internationally against COVID-19, but they are still in their trial period. Do speak to your healthcare provider if you need to know more about coronavirus medication and treatment.

In general, the best way to protect yourself is to stay vigilant about personal hygiene, and to avoid all unnecessary contact with other people. If you do feel unwell, see if your symptoms match that of coronavirus; if they do not, you could simply stay home, stay hydrated, and let yourself recover as you would any other bout of illness. However, if in doubt, it is best to seek medical advice from a professional. Being mindful about changes in your body and keeping on top of cleanliness will be the key to getting through this pandemic safely!

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor-at-large

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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