While many health officials in the U.S. are telling people coronavirus symptoms could appear flu-like, global COVID-19 data indicates most patients will only experience a small number of these symptoms and it’s important to know the difference.
University of Oxford’s Global Change Data Lab used available data collected by the World Health Organization to determine what the most common symptoms of the coronavirus are and what symptoms aren’t also signs of the flu or a cold.
The goal of the lab’s website OurWorldInData.org is “to make the world’s largest problems understandable and accessible,” which includes COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus.
The coronavirus is different, according to the report’s authors, Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie, because all data and research on the virus are still relatively new.
According to the WHO data of 55,924 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China—the country with the most confirmed cases worldwide—the most common symptoms were fever found in 87.9% of patients and dry cough reported in 67% of cases.
The third most common symptom was fatigue, in about 40% of cases, according to OurWorldInData.org.
Every third patient in China experienced sputum production, which is thick mucus coughed up from the lungs, according to WHO.
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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website list fever, cough and shortness of breath as the most common symptoms. Shortness of breath is the fifth most common symptom, according to the Our World In Data analysis of China coronavirus cases.
Why does this matter?
“It is crucial to know how common the various symptoms of COVID-19 are, as it allows a better assessment for whether one suffers from the disease or not,” according to the report.
People who are told to look for flu-like symptoms need to know what sets coronavirus symptoms apart. For example, COVID-19 data shows it’s rare for a confirmed case to experience a runny nose, according to OurWorldinData.org.
The large majority –85%-- of coronavirus patients do not experience many of the other symptoms such as muscle pain, according to OurWorlddata.org.
When will symptoms appear and for how long?
According to the WHO, COVID-19 signs, including fever, appear on an average of 5-6 days after infection. However, the incubation periods -- the time between exposure and first symptoms-- can extend up to 14 days.
Data shows it is most common that symptoms start with a fever and then patients develop a dry cough. Over several days, some patients will experience shortness of breath, according to the Our World In Data report.
More than 80% of coronavirus patients will experience mild symptoms. Only 5% of patients will become critically ill experiencing respiratory failure, septic shock and/or multiple organ dysfunction or failure, according to the report.
The coronavirus can last up to six weeks in some severe and critical cases, according to the WHO report on China coronavirus cases.
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Who is most at risk?
Health officials around the world tend to agree on this subject: Older adults are at the greatest risk of dying if infected with coronavirus and of contracting COVID-19.
The data backs this up, too. A breakdown of all known cases and deaths by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows 14.8% of patients 80 years and older who were infected died as a result. The mortality rate for younger patients in China was much lower.
Research and data also shows those with an underlying health condition are at higher risk for contracting the virus, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, hypertension and cancer, according to the report.
According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking COVID-19 in real-time, 4,090 coronavirus patients have died worldwide and more than 116,694 cases have been confirmed as of March 10.