The coronavirus sweeping the globe has a lot in common with the flu, but it has the potential to be dangerous if not identified quickly, experts say.
It has spread rapidly since it was first identified in late December 2019.
While the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have emerged from, was once the epicentre, more than 100 countries now have cases.
The mysterious lung virus is part of a large family of coronaviruses with a wide range of severity — from deadly strains like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) to the simple common cold.
Runny nose, headache, cough and fever are all symptoms of this new coronavirus strain but they’re also common symptoms of influenza.
Part of the difficulty in weeding out mild cases of coronavirus is its similarities with the flu, said Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
“We’re in the middle of influenza season. So when you get those symptoms, it’s most likely to be influenza, but it could be one of a couple hundred other viruses.”
“Every respiratory virus is the same — you get a runny nose, a stuffy nose, a cough, sometimes a sore throat, all because the lining of your nose and throat are damaged. The symptoms are caused by that virus or bacteria damaging the cells of your respiratory tract. It doesn’t matter what virus is causing it.”
Things like shortness of breath, chills and body aches are linked with more dangerous kinds of coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In extremely serious cases — especially in those with weakened immune systems — the virus can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, kidney failure and death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that, so far, most of those who have died from the virus had “underlying health conditions,” such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, which weakened their immune systems.
But symptoms of milder coronavirus cases can be “somewhat indistinguishable” from the flu, said Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto.
She echoed the WHO in saying that there’s still so much that’s not known about the virus, including how easily it spreads or its an understanding of its full severity.
“Since the data, so far, is from patients who show up in hospitals (severely ill), it’s not yet clear whether their symptoms are the same as those who are infected with a milder case of the disease,” Fish said.
A diagnostic test is available to detect the bug quickly — a sharp contrast to the 2002-03 SARS outbreak where there was no similar test readily available.
However, there is no vaccine to prevent an infection from this virus. Because of that, people who become infected are quarantined in hospitals or homes to prevent it from spreading.
There are research teams working on developing a potential vaccine, according to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
The WHO declared the disease a pandemic on March 11.
So how can people differentiate flu-like symptoms from a more severe infection, of coronavirus or otherwise? It’s difficult to pinpoint without a test, experts say.
For Canada, Fish said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms are likely to be just that, but it’s not up to you to diagnose.
Health Canada explains on its website that if you start having COVID-19 symptoms, it’s important to isolate yourself from others as quickly as possible. It then recommends you call either a health care professional or the public health authority in the province or territory where you live.
If you feel like you need to see a doctor more quickly, it’s recommended to call a family doctor or walk-in first, to see if you fit the profile and can be tested there.
Many clinics have been — and prefer — screening patients over the phone, so as not to encourage the spread.
For more details on what you should do, visit here.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press
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