En español | In most cases, the illness starts with a fever. Usually a cough accompanies it — sometimes shortness of breath. But for many people with a mild case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, that’s pretty much the extent of unpleasant symptoms, explains Mike Wadman, an emergency physician and co-medical director of the National Quarantine Unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. That’s where 15 Americans who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship were treated or observed for the illness when they returned to the United States in late February.
If a mild case of COVID-19 doesn’t sound to you much different from the cold, flu or any other respiratory illness that circulates seasonally, you’re right.
“There is a lot of overlap,” Wadman says.
In fact, some of his patients have told him that getting sick from the coronavirus is a lot like getting the flu. A handful have reported it's not as bad. Influenza typically comes with a longer list of symptoms, such as nasal congestion, sore throat, muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea.
“And we’re really not seeing that in the patients we’ve seen here with COVID-19,” Wadman says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of people infected with the coronavirus experience some of the mild symptoms Wadman describes. Often, these people can recover at home without medical care.
Some, however, fare much worse and may require hospitalization for extreme respiratory distress or pneumonia, an inflammation of the lungs caused from infection. Health officials say older adults and people with underlying health conditions — heart disease, lung ailments and diabetes — are most at risk for severe illness.
If you experience signs of infection
Anyone who exhibits the three primary symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, cough and shortness of breath — is encouraged to call their health care provider first. Going into a doctor’s waiting room, urgent care center or emergency room isn’t always the best course of action, since you could infect others or pick up another infection, Wadman says.
Mild COVID-19 cases:
• Shortness of breath
Severe COVID-19 cases:
• Chest pain
Pain in the chest typically warrants an emergency department visit, no matter the illness in question, he says. The same goes for progressive or sudden onset of shortness of breath or any sudden change in mental functioning. The CDC also lists “bluish lips or face” as a symptom that requires immediate medical attention.
If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, stay home and avoid public areas, the CDC advises. Stay in a designated sickroom away from others, if possible, and keep your doctor updated with any changes in symptoms. The CDC also says people sick with COVID-19 should wear a face mask to help prevent the spread of germs to others.
Washing your hands often and wiping down frequently touched surfaces also reduces the risk of getting others sick.
COVID-19 doesn’t have a cure yet, just relief from symptoms. A clinical trial is underway to test the safety and efficacy of the antiviral drug remdesivir as a potential treatment.
How to protect yourself from coronavirus
Without a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus, experts say the best way to avoid it is to practice everyday prevention measures: Wash your hands often and stay away from sick people — at least six feet away, Wadman says.
“This disease is transmitted by respiratory droplets. So those droplets from a sneeze or cough, if [they land] in your mouth or nose, or if you’re inhaling those droplets, that’s the way that this disease is primarily transmitted from one person to the next,” he says. “And if you stay six feet away, you minimize the possibility of that happening.”
Health officials are also urging Americans to stay home as much as possible — especially older adults — and to avoid groups of more than 10 people. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose. And if you do need to cough or sneeze, be sure to cover it.
“Especially if you are older or if you do have other medical conditions, you’re at higher risk. And so really adhering to these preventive measures is a very important thing to prevent becoming ill, and if you are sick, to prevent giving that infection to someone else,” Wadman says.
Editor's note: This story, originally published March 2, 2020, was updated to reflect new information.