By now, you may have memorized some of the most common symptoms of coronavirus: fever, cough and a runny nose. In other words, many of the same symptoms as the common cold or the flu.
But as the coronavirus outbreak progresses, experts say it’s increasingly likely that you might have the new illness.
“This is much more widely spread than people realize,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The events in Washington state really show that this has established itself in our communities and will continue to do so.”
So how do you know if you have coronavirus, and when should you see a doctor? We asked experts some of your most common questions about symptoms, medical care and testing:
Q: I have fairly mild symptoms. Can I manage them at home?
A: Not only can you self-manage from the comfort of your couch, but health officials want you to do so. You should stay home if your symptoms can be handled with over-the-counter cold and flu aids from your local drugstore.
Evidence from the more than 80,000 coronavirus cases that have been reported in China indicates that about 80 percent of illnesses are mild. If everyone with a cold floods their local emergency rooms, it will be harder for health-care workers to treat patients who are critically ill. Plus, you could pick up the virus in the hospital if you don’t already have it.
“If you feel well enough that if it weren’t for coronavirus you wouldn’t see a doctor, don’t see a doctor,” said Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Q: I’m experiencing more serious symptoms. Should I see a doctor?
A: It’s a good idea to call your primary-care doctor if you have both a fever and a cough, said Maria Raven, chief of emergency medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. And if you have shortness of breath, unremitting fever, weakness or lethargy, it’s definitely time to get in touch with a health-care professional, according to Adalja. Those could be signs of pneumonia, which is common in severe cases of coronavirus.
To determine whether you’re lethargic or just tired, Adalja advises thinking about whether you’ve gotten a good amount of sleep. If you have, and you’re still unable to move at a normal speed or carry out your daily activities, you’re probably lethargic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that you seek medical help if you recently traveled to a coronavirus-infected area or had close contact with a known infected person and have a fever, a cough or trouble breathing.
Older people and those with underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are more at risk for severe illness. You should act quickly to seek medical attention if you fall into one of those categories and feel seriously unwell, Adalja said.
Q: I’ve decided to get medical care. Should I go to my primary-care physician, an urgent-care center or an emergency department?
A: It depends. Most important, if you or someone you are caring for is very short of breath, is minimally responsive or unresponsive, looks blue or ashen, or has low blood pressure, Adalja said, you should call 911 immediately and travel by ambulance to an emergency room.
Let’s say your symptoms are not that extreme. In that case, you may be well-served by a visit to your regular doctor’s office. If your situation feels more dire, you might want to go to urgent care or to an emergency department.
Wherever you go, Adalja said, you should call ahead and tell them that you’re experiencing respiratory symptoms. That enables them to be ready to protect other patients when you arrive, such as by quickly outfitting you with a face mask or directing you to a separate section of the waiting room.
Q: When I go to see a doctor, will they test me for coronavirus?
A: In addition to or before testing for coronavirus, doctors may test you for the flu or other respiratory viruses. A flu test requires that a health-care worker swab the inside of your nose or the back of your throat. Results can take anywhere from an hour to several hours, according to the CDC.
Testing for coronavirus has been limited so far, but that’s changing now that the Food and Drug Administration has authorized certain hospital laboratories and commercial labs to use their own tests before the agency clears them. Previously, health-care workers could use only a CDC-created test that was distributed in a limited way and suspected to be faulty. Individual hospitals can now choose their own criteria for testing, and each is likely to do it differently.
Raven said UCSF Health will probably add coronavirus to the panel of viruses that doctors regularly test for in patients with respiratory symptoms. She said they might initially err on the side of over-testing to get a sense of how many people coronavirus is affecting and what the range of severity is.
Two things to keep in mind: If you don’t have a fever, you probably don’t have coronavirus, according to Gary Simon, chief of infectious diseases at George Washington University. And hospitals will probably change their testing criteria as the outbreak progresses and more areas become hubs for the virus.
“You know how some things are cast in stone?” Simon said. “This is cast in Jell-O.”