NEW ORLEANS — Is it the flu, a cold or the new coronavirus? Patients and doctors alike are parsing signs of illness to figure out who needs what tests or care and how worried they should be.
In some cases, people feel like they have more questions than answers. That’s why Dr. Rachel, the Teaching Doctor, is answering the most common questions she hears from patients and viewers.
“So many people are so afraid of this virus. And, I really feel that if they get some facts and some knowledge about it, it can kind of alleviate some of their fears,” says Dr. Rachel.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
Dr. Rachel says practicing social distancing — staying at least six feet away from others — and avoiding mass gatherings are key to slow down the spread of the virus.
“The coronavirus spreads from person-to-person, mainly through respiratory droplets,” she said. “When someone sick with the disease coughs, sneezes, or just talks, they throw these respiratory droplets into the air. They can land on the mouths or noses of people nearby or be inhaled into the lungs. That is why social distancing can help.”
Another key way to prevent the spread of the virus is by washing your hands with soap and water. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends first washing with warm or cold water and then lathering soap for 20 seconds to get it on the backs of hands, between fingers and under fingernails before rinsing off.
HOW DEADLY IS THE VIRUS?
Researchers are still trying to understand just how deadly the new coronavirus is. The mortality rate from infection with the virus isn’t known yet because the cases caught in an early part of an outbreak are often the most severe, people with mild or no symptoms aren’t being tested, and sometimes overwhelmed hospitals struggle to care for the sickest patients. Various reports have estimated the fatality rate from less than 1% to as high as 4% among cases diagnosed so far, depending on location.
Most people infected by the new coronavirus develop mild or moderate symptoms and recover after about two weeks.
SO WHAT DO I HAVE?
Flu, cold and coronavirus often share certain symptoms, but differences in intensity and how they appear can offer clues to which one is causing the misery. Doctors can test for the flu and get results within a day, but coronavirus testing is still limited by availability in the United States.
Colds are often suspected because adults get about two on average each year, said LeRoy, a family medicine doctor and associate dean at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
“The common cold just starts out with a sore or scratchy throat, cough, runny nose, stuffy nose” and any fever is usually mild, he said.
Flu symptoms are more intense and usually come on suddenly, the Yale-New Haven Health System advises. They can include a high fever (over 100.5 degrees), extreme exhaustion, muscle or body aches, a dry cough, and chills.
“It really hits you like a bus,” and people may start a day well but feel terrible by afternoon, LeRoy said.
Flu symptoms can include a runny or stuffy nose, headaches and possibly vomiting or diarrhea, though the latter two are more common in children than adults, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear more slowly. They usually include fever, a dry cough and noticeable shortness of breath, according to the World Health Organization. A minority of cases develop pneumonia, and the disease is especially worrisome for the elderly and those with other medical problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or heart conditions.
One study of hospitalized patients in China found that about half did not have a fever when they were admitted but nearly all developed one.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE SICK
Don’t go straight to your doctor’s office — that just risks making more people sick, officials urge. Call ahead, and ask if you need to be seen and where.
Fever, cough and noticeable shortness of breath — “if you have those three components, especially if it’s associated with some recent travel or someone you know who’s been exposed to COVID-19, those things should prompt you to call for medical attention,” LeRoy said.
“Mildly ill patients should be encouraged to stay home,” the CDC’s Dr. Sue Gerber told doctors on a conference call last week. People having difficulty breathing should seek care, and older people or those with other conditions should contact their doctors early in the course of illness, she said.
You can send your questions for Dr. Rachel by email to DrRachel@wgno.com.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)