Coronavirus, cold or flu symptoms? How to tell the difference | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 05.02.2020
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Coronavirus, cold or flu symptoms? How to tell the difference

Runny nose, cough, sore throat and fever: Symptoms are often similar when one starts to feel sick. That makes it difficult to tell if the illness is a virus or a bacterial infection.

At first glance, symptoms for the new coronavirus, otherwise known as 2019-nCoV, are similar to those we know as a common cold or flu. 

Common coronavirus symptoms can include:

— Fever
— Dry cough
— Shortness of breath
— Aching muscles
— Fatigue

Less typical coronavirus symptoms:

— Phlegm buildup
— Headache
— Hemoptysis 
— Diarrhea

Symptoms atypical for coronavirus:

— Runny nose
— Sore throat

A runny nose and a sore throat are typical signs of upper respiratory infection. Therefore, those who have bouts of sneezing or get the sniffles likely have the flu or a common cold. 

As the new coronavirus generally affects the lower respiratory tract, most of those infected exhibit a dry cough, shortness of breath or pneumonia, but not a sore throat.

Many initially show no symptoms

Many of those infected with the new virus initially showed no symptoms. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), a German government disease control and prevention agency, the new virus has an incubation period of 14 days.

If you are not sure what you have or are concerned, you should see a doctor. A health care professional can have a phlegm sample analysis made to determine the presence or absence of respiratory viruses. That will provide clarity for both you and your doctor.

Read more: Wuhan medic: 'Many more infections than official numbers show'

Do respiratory masks help?

Not really. Viruses are not airborne, and the current coronavirus is transmitted as a droplet or smear infection. Therefore, it is better to keep a safe distance from those who are or may be infected. A key preventative measure is to thoroughly and regularly wash one's hands with soap and hot water. It is also best to use disposable towels when drying one's hands afterward.

A person in a face mask (Reuters/C. G. Rawlins)

Face masks aren't effective at preventing the spread of coronavirus

Read more: Coronavirus: Everything you need to know

Flu or cold? Here are the little differences

Even doctors can have difficulty telling the difference between a case of influenza infection and a common cold when confronted with a patient's symptoms. 

Read more: What constitutes an international public health emergency?

With a cold, most people get a scratchy throat, then a runny nose and eventually develop a cough. Those symptoms, as well as fever and headache, can plague a person for days, making them feel listless.

By comparison, the flu hits you all at once: A flu patient's head and limbs ache, a dry cough begins, one's voice becomes hoarse, painful throat aches occur and a high fever (up to 41°C / 105°F), often accompanied by chills, can knock you out in short order. One just wants to stay in bed, feels exhausted, has no appetite and can sleep for hours on end.

A person blowing their nose (picture-alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand)

The flu comes on quickly and usually takes a week or more until you're feeling healthy again

A common cold typically passes within a few days and most symptoms go away after about a week. A flu is more tedious, keeping a person bedridden for at least a week, in some cases requiring several weeks before a person truly feels healthy again.

Read more: A dramatic escape from Wuhan's lockdown

The RKI's Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO), recommends that all German residents at high risk of serious illness get an annual flu vaccination. That group includes people 60 and over, people who are chronically ill, pregnant women, and residents at senior and nursing homes. Beyond that, STIKO urges those who have a lot of contact with others (i.e., medical workers or those in public businesses or institutions) to protect themselves through vaccination as well.

When should antibiotics be used?

Most colds and flus are caused by viruses, against which antibiotics are useless. 

Antibiotics strengthen the body's defenses by killing or hindering the growth of bacteria, but they also attack the cell walls or metabolic processes of micro-organisms. Penicillin, for instance, destroys the cell wall synthesis of bacteria. Porous cell walls make it impossible for pathogens to survive, literally causing them to burst. But this only works on bacteria not viruses.

A hand holding a box from shelves of medicine (picture-alliance/empics/J. Behal)

Antibiotics are of little use against viruses

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine — a race against time

Antibiotics do, however, make sense in instances in which bacteria enter the body via a weakened immune system and begin to multiply. That process can lead to infection, sometimes permanently damaging the body's organs. Pneumonia, tonsillitis, cystitis or meningitis are most often caused by bacteria — thus, it makes sense to fight them with antibiotics. 

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