How do I recognise COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the novel coronavirus officially called SARS-CoV-2. Because of its high infectivity and massive death toll all over the world, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a pandemic on March 11th 2020. This is not a common occurrence, and most past pandemics were flu-related, last time being in 2009 with the so called swine flu, officially known as H1N1.

But, how do we differentiate between COVID-19 and the rest of the infectious respiratory diseases, which are potentially deadly, especially for immunocompromised people? How is COVID-19 different from the common cold or flu? How to keep from falling for any of the myths and misconceptions, spreading like the disease itself?

Without proper testing it is very hard to say, whether we contracted COVID-19 or some other disease causing feelings of malaise, fever, cough, etc.

Even with having been tested, we cannot be certain, as errors do occur (this is why testing is routinely done multiple times in set time intervals). Furthermore, because a high percentage of those infected with COVID-19 recuperate without any serious symptoms, the strain on our healthcare system, and a good chance that we will spread the disease to others when visiting your doctor, it is recommended that if we suspect a COVID-19 infection and do not (yet) exhibit any serious problems, we should treat the infection at home, like we would any other, with lots of rest, fluids, and over the counter drugs to alleviate the symptoms.

Thus, it would be prudent to collect the signs and symptoms that could imply a COVID-19 infection in one place:

Common Signs and Symptoms

In most cases (about 9 out of 10) we are struck with a fever, which can deviate from the norm by a few tenths of a degree or it can climb over 40°C. For COVID-19, however, a low raise in temperature (around 38°C is more common).

Fever is the body’s normal and natural reaction to infections. It is hard to predict how long after the onset of an infection it should take for it to develop; a study found the median to be 5 days. This means, that half of the infected got a fever sooner, the other half later.

It can persist for less than a day or more than a week. In the case of a short term low increase, the best decision would be to drink lots of fluids and rest. Longer and higher increases in temperature warrant the use of a fever reducing drug such as ibuprofen and consult with your doctor over the phone and check if an in person meeting is necessary.

The second most common symptom is dry cough, i.e. a ticklish, unpleasant cough with no phlegm. Usually this is a persistent cough, which can disturb sleep and, because of its persistence and duration, cause abdominal muscle soreness. Seven out of ten people with COVID-19 experience dry cough.

The third most common symptom is tiredness, similar to that accompanying the flu and like with the flu persisting even after recuperation. It affects nearly half of the infected and in many cases persists for months after the infection is officially gone. The cause is difficult to identify, however, autopsies of the deceased have shown scar tissue formation and damage in the lungs, which could account for the tiredness in the long run, because of the body’s lowered ability to utilise oxygen.

Less Common Signs and Symptoms

Between five and fifteen percent of those infected with COVID-19 experience these symptoms (one or more):

  • muscle and/or joint pains,
  • general malaise,
  • diarrhoea (usually appears before any other symptoms),
  • headaches,
  • shortness of breath (with signature gasping for air following coughing fits),
  • loss of taste and smell,
  • throat inflammation,
  • coughing up phlegm (especially in the later stages),
  • conjunctivitis (so-called pink eye, due to an inflammation of the eye’s conjuncitva),
  • stuffed nose,
  • skin rashes,
  • vomiting (usually as a result of dry cough).

Serious Signs and Symptoms

Any of the below symptoms are usually indications of a more serious reaction to the virus.

  • a constant shortness of breath, pressure in the chest, choking,
  • blue tinting of the skin, especially of the face and lips, suggesting lack of oxygen in blood,
  • confusion, disorientation, drowsiness and somnolescence.

When encountering any of the above symptoms it is vital that we contact a doctor. Before visiting inform them of what you are experiencing and they will decide if sending an ambulance or any other measures are necessary. When describing symptoms we must be accurate and to the point. We must also not forget any other ailments we may have (hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc.)

Conclusion

Symptoms of COVID-19 usually overlap with other viral diseases, ergo, even if all of the above symptoms are manifested, we cannot say with certainty whether or not we actually have a novel coronavirus infection. If we suffer from the milder form of the disease it does not really matter which virus we’ve contracted. The main thing is to stay in bed and recuperate, which is good in two ways: our body heals faster and we cannot pass on the disease to others.

Manifesting any of the more serious signs, however, means that we should definitely seek help from a doctor, as this is about the health of ourselves as well as the people we come in contact with.