More and more people who are experiencing the typical symptoms of a cold and flu are asking the question in the title. This article provides essential information that can help us recognize the danger of infection with the new coronavirus.

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Patients infected with the new coronavirus may show symptoms of varying severity, but may also be completely asymptomatic. While the majority of cases (80%) display mild clinical manifestations and possibly pneumonia, severe cases and deaths are more common among elders with pre-existing medical conditions (such as respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes).

According to a report by the World Health Organization, based on data analysed from over 55,000 cases, the symptoms of infection with the new coronavirus, in order of frequency, are:

1. Fever – 87.9%

2. Dry cough – 67.7%

3. Fatigue (felt in various degrees) – 38.1%

4. Productive cough with mucous sputum – 33.4%

5. Difficulty breathing – 18.6%

6. Muscle and joint pain – 14.8%

7. Sore throat – 13.9%

8. Headaches – 13.6%

9. Chills – 11.4%

10. Nausea and / or vomiting – 5%

11. Nasal congestion – 4.8%

12. Diarrhoea – 3.7%

For all these symptoms, the epidemiological criteria must be considered:

1. contact with an infected person

2. a recent trip to an area with a high number of cases.

Types of disease and the evolution of symptoms

Infection with the new coronavirus most often starts with nonspecific symptoms, classified as a cold or flu. It is well known that they can occur immediately after contact with the virus or within the 14 days that follow.

Nearly 90% of patients will experience fever within this time frame.

The new coronavirus is a respiratory virus that destroys pulmonary secretion elimination mechanisms and lung cells, which triggers inflammation. Following these processes is the appearance of symptoms such as a non-productive cough, fatigue, headache, muscle or joint pain or a sore throat.

Those with pre-existing diseases of the lungs and cardiovascular system will usually develop respiratory tract difficulties after day 5 of the infection and tend to seek medical help after 7 days.

Mild cases usually become asymptomatic after this period. The lack of significant manifestation of symptoms makes these patients the most efficient transmitters of the virus.

The remaining cases may develop pneumonia up to day 7, then they may continue favorably under treatment (in moderate cases) or may be complicated (in severe and critical cases) with what is called ”acute respiratory distress syndrome”, which endangers the patient’s life. The body’s immune response against the virus causes significant inflammation and fluid build-up in the lungs, which are then no longer able to oxygenate the body. These patients require respiratory support in specialized intensive care units. For survivors of severe cases, the pulmonary damage is permanent. Mortality is 30-40% in this form of the disease and usually occurs between days 14 and 19 after becoming infected. Other critically ill patients may remain in the intensive care units for weeks or months.

So how do we differentiate the symptoms?

If you experience nasal congestion, sneezing, a sore throat or a mild cough, with symptoms that appear gradually, then you most likely have a cold. Stay at home, hydrate yourself as much as possible, take paracetamol in case of fever or pain and use nasal decongestants. Symptoms usually last for up to a week. Call your family doctor if your symptoms worsen.

If you experience sneezing, nasal congestion, itching in the nose and / or eyes, it is most likely an allergic reaction. Limit contact with potential allergens, contact your family doctor or specialist allergist.

If you experience fever, chills, productive coughs, chest pain, you may have pneumonia. Call your family doctor or 112, depending on the severity of the symptoms.

If you experience fever (above 38º C), a severe cough, consistent muscle pain, severe fatigue, shortness of breath, sudden onset of symptoms, then you are likely suffering from either the flu or the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Call your family doctor or Public Health Directorate. For aggravated symptoms, call your country’s emergency number.

An important warning

Because patients with no symptoms or mild symptoms tend to believe that they do not have the coronavirus infection, it is extremely important that, regardless of the likely diagnosis, we should be aware that we can easily transmit the virus to those around us and take all measures to protect them. Practice prudence even if you show no symptoms.

Check out all our COVID-19 coverage. We update constantly.

Bogdan Popa, MD, is an Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology Medical Specialist.