Ask the Pharmacist

Q. How will I know whether I have this coronavirus disease (Covid-19) rather than the flu or just a regular cold?

A. That is a very good question, and one that is difficult to answer. The common cold is also a type of corona virus (obviously a much less lethal one) so it is not surprising that many of the symptoms are similar (sore throat, cough). There are also many similarities to the influenza “flu” virus (fever, body aches). So how can you tell which infection you might have?

Below is a useful chart from that helps differentiate and shows how similar the symptoms are among them.

Signs & Symptoms         Cold                        Flu                        COVID-19

Most people by now have done some research and have learned that the three most common symptoms of this new coronavirus are fever, cough and shortness of breath. To complicate matters however, not everyone exhibits those symptoms. In fact, some people that have tested positive for Covid-19 did not have any symptoms (asymptomatic) whatsoever which is alarming since these people can still easily spread the virus and tend to take less precautions such as quarantining themselves.

This has thus led to our current travel bans, closed borders and the closure of our schools and non-essential businesses and is also the reason why we are living in our social-distancing world and encouraged to stay home. Others have very mild symptoms and/or may not experience the “top three” that are listed, so assume that they can’t possibly have Covid-19. Apart from the fever (100.4’F, 38’C), dry cough and shortness of breath, there are other common symptoms that have come to light. Sore throat, runny nose and headache are increasingly being reported as symptoms, with or without the typical fever and cough.

As well, a study done with 204 Covid-19 patients showed that digestive issues were prevalent in 103 of them (50.5%). What is interesting is that lack of appetite was often reported as the first initial symptom, before the fever and cough began in many of the people. Other digestive symptoms that seem relevant are diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting.

Another symptom that has gained interest lately is anosmia (thanks to Kincardine Legion’s Facebook Live Trivia, many of you are now familiar with this term) which means loss of smell and can also lead to hypogeusia (loss of taste). A group of ear, nose and throat specialists in the UK reported that 2/3’s of Germany’s Covid-19 cases complained of anosmia while 30% of South Korea’s Covid-19 cases said it was their main symptom. Keep in mind that a loss of smell and taste can happen with allergies, which are common at this time of year when the trees are budding and the flowers are just beginning to bloom. It is also a possible symptom of the common cold. Losing your sense of smell and/or taste does not mean that you do indeed have Covid-19, but it should be taken into consideration.

So, how will you know if you have this contagious virus? Unless you get yourself tested, you will not know for certain. Because of the lack of tests that we have in Canada, only those that are experiencing severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing and/or unable to cope are asked to go to the Covid-19 testing centres to get tested at this point. Hopefully, these testing standards will become more flexible as more tests become available allowing us to test many more people with even mild symptoms. Experts cite mass testing as a major reason that some countries such as South Korea came through this relatively unscathed.

If you have symptoms but do not have any difficulty breathing and can manage at home, it is suggested that you presume that you do have Covid-19 and self-isolate for 14 days.

We are continually learning about this novel coronavirus and thus the information is getting updated frequently. Continue to periodically check reputable websites (Health Canada, CDC, WHO to name a few) for the most up-to-date recommendations. For more information on this or any other topic, contact your pharmacist.