What are the symptoms of coronavirus? How to know if you're at risk

The symptoms of a coronavirus may vary and be similar to the flu. Here's how to know when you might need to see a doctor.

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By Dr. Natalie Azar and Lisa Tolin

With the coronavirus outbreak spreading across the U.S., even a case of the sniffles may feel like cause for concern.

How can you know if you’re infected with the new coronavirus? What are coronavirus symptoms? And when is it time to see a doctor?

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

Symptoms of coronavirus COVID-19 include a cough, sore throat, aches and pains, fever and fatigue. Some cases are mild, such as the common cold, while others are more likely to lead to pneumonia.

In late April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their list of symptoms to include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

Opthamologists reported another, rare symptom - pink eye:

  • Redness and swelling of the eyes
  • Sticky discharge

In early April, dermatologists shared a surprising symptom that could be related to the coronavirus: purple lesions on hands or feet. They are referring to it as "COVID toes."

Another odd skin symptom that has been reported by COVID-19 patients: fizzing.

Doctors have reported a number of strokes and other neurologic symptoms related to COVID-19.

And in children, there have been reports of inflammatory conditions that may be linked to coronavirus.

The CDC believes at this time that symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. NBC's Dr. Natalie Azar notes that many people have mild symptoms at the beginning and later develop shortness of breath and respiratory distress.

Less frequently reported symptoms include nausea and vomiting, stuffy nose and diarrhea.

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When should you see a doctor?

Call your doctor or use telemedicine before you visit their office. Don't go straight to a doctor's office or emergency room, where you could unnecessarily expose other people.

Seek medical attention if you have fever, fatigue, cough or shortness of breath and are over the age of 60 or have underlying medical problems, Azar stressed. Anyone with shortness of breath, fever above 104 degrees, chest pain, intractable vomiting or diarrhea should seek medical attention.

But if you have mild, cold or flu-like symptoms, there's no need to see a doctor.

"You don’t need medical attention if you have the sniffles," Azar noted.

How is coronavirus treated?

If you are managing symptoms at home, get rest, stay hydrated and take fever reducers like acetominophen or ibuprofen. In the hospitals, doctors will do the same thing but add breathing and oxygen assistance if necessary.

There is currently no vaccine or medicine that we know to be effective against coronavirus COVID-19, though some patients are being enrolled in trials with antivirals.

"Right now, if you test positive but have mild illness you would stay home while being monitored likely by the local or state health department," Azar says.

A quarantine for possible exposure would be 14 days.

Is coronavirus worse than the flu?

Both the flu and coronavirus are respiratory illnesses. Coronavirus is definitely more contagious than the flu, Azar said.

"Fever, cough, shortness or breath can apply to both," she said. "With flu, we're very accustomed to this idea of that it starts really quickly, a lot of those aches and malaise."

If you have flu-like symptoms, "I think at this point, it's safe to provide guidance to say if you have come into contact with anyone or been to an area where there's an outbreak, you theoretically could have been exposed."

Is coronavirus deadly?

Coronavirus is more deadly than the flu, but not as life-threatening as some other recent outbreaks.

For flu, it's about 0.1% mortality. For coronavirus, reports indicate it's about 1.4%. SARS was 10%, Azar explained.

"But for the vast majority of people, it's going to be a mild illness and, of course, the fatality number is not nearly as striking or concerning as some outbreaks we've seen in the past."

How does coronavirus spread?

Coronaviruses usually spread through direct contact with an infected person. Researchers are still learning precisely how the new virus spreads from person to person.

Coronaviruses in general are spread through close contact — a range of about three to six feet — and the virus is primarily spread through a sick person coughing or sneezing on someone.

A person could also become infected through contact with the virus particles on a surface. If an infected person sneezes or coughs onto a surface, such as a countertop or doorknob, and another person touches that surface and then rubs his or her eyes or nose, for example, the latter may get sick.

This novel coronavirus also appears to be spread by talking and breathing. Wearing a mask help stops asymptomatic carriers from transmitting the virus.

The SARS virus was also spread through feces. Experts have said the same spreading mechanism may be found in the new virus, but it's too early to know for sure.

How can I protect against coronavirus?

Washing your hands properly is a great place to start. Adhere to social distancing guidelines. Wear a face mask.

Then check out these 10 tips for protecting yourself and your family during a coronavirus outbreak.