Coronavirus Symptoms: When Is It Time to See a Doctor or Get Tested?

A doctor explains how to know if your symptoms hint at coronavirus, the flu, or just the sniffles.

By now, you probably know that the symptoms of coronavirus include a runny nose, cough, sore throat, aches and pains, and fever. The only problem? Those are also some of the symptoms of the common cold or the flu. And given that we're still in flu season, how do you know if you should treat your symptoms as coronavirus or something less serious? We spoke to Eudene Harry, MD, Medical Director at the Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center in Orlando, Florida, to find out.

Earlier this week, there were numerous reports of people being turned away at hospitals due to strict coronavirus testing criteria from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said they would be removing those earlier restrictions on testing for coronavirus, and that anyone with a doctor's order could now qualify for testing. Wondering if your symptoms are "severe" enough to warrant going to the doctor instead of just staying home and drinking fluids? Here's what Harry has to say.

How do you know if your symptoms are "severe" enough to be tested for coronavirus?

"Our definition of severe depends on various factors, like whether you're young and healthy or older with pre-existing conditions," Harry says. "But, generally, what we ask is whether you have shortness of breath, a high persistent fever, and are unable to eat or drink any liquids—those are signs things are getting more severe."

Your breathing is a big indicator of coronavirus.

Given that coronavirus is a respiratory disease, Harry says that the first question that doctors ask is whether or not the patient is breathing normally and whether or not they have any chest pain. What counts as "normal" depends on the person. If you're a smoker and regularly cough, or if you have anxiety and experience shortness of breath during panic attacks, neither of these would be considered a sign of coronavirus.

"Not everyone who has shortness of breath has the virus, and there could be many reasons, from being 'out of shape' to asthma," Harry says. "But one of the things we look at is whether or not someone can complete a sentence. If they need to take several breaths throughout, that's a sign they're having trouble breathing."

Pay attention to worsening symptoms.

If you wake up with a slight fever and the sniffles, Harry says you should follow the standard protocol for a cold: stay home and rest and drink plenty of fluids. If you find your symptoms getting worse in spite of that, call your doctor, especially if you're older and/or have pre-existing conditions.

"Older people with pre-existing conditions decompensate relatively quickly," Harry says. "With younger, healthier people, there's usually a slope in the decline, which means there's more time for intervention."

Wash your hands often and try to reduce contact with others.

Even if your symptoms are just a cold, it's a good idea to take extra precautionary measures to help avoid infecting others or delaying recovery. While medical professionals have said that face masks will not protect you from contracting coronavirus, they should be worn by those who already have the disease to avoid contagion. That means it's extra important to do things like cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, and to minimize direct contact with other people as much as possible.

"A common cold can leave you more susceptible to picking up other diseases, and it is possible to have more than one infection," Harry says. "So you want to limit your exposure to other people and have your immune system as prepped as possible."

Listen to your body.

"My final question to people is: 'Are you concerned about your symptoms?'" Harry says. If you feel the same way you usually feel during a common cold, then it's likely to just be a common cold. "But if a patient says something doesn't feel right to them, that's usually a good enough indicator for me to warrant testing," she says.

And if you feel like you're "about to curl up into a ball and die," Harry says, bypass the doctor and go straight to the ER, as you normally would.

Don't panic.

"Panicking doesn't accomplish anything," Harry says. "Panicking often leads us to make bad choices because you're not thinking clearly and can't make good decision. It can give you shortness of breath and wreck you immune system. Just remain cautiously aware."

Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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