Health and Wellness

'I think I have coronavirus': Symptoms to watch, when to call a doctor, getting tested—and what to expect overall

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As the coronavirus outbreak continues to intensify, people are increasingly taking extra precautions in maintaining health and hygiene. Some schools and employers have responded to the global pandemic by shifting to online learning or asking employees to work from home.

With more than 127,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide (as of Thursday, March 12, 2020), according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, one question that still lingers is, "What should I do — and expect — if I think I have COVID-19?"

The short answer is: It depends. Although the disease has led to more than 4,700 deaths, "the most important message is that if you're young and otherwise relatively healthy, it will most likely be similar to a common cold — or, worst case, the flu," Dr. Sandra Kesh, deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group, tells CNBC Make It.

If you feel sick and reasonably believe you have COVID-19, here's a list of frequently asked questions, including symptoms to watch for, when to see a doctor, and getting tested:

What are the main symptoms of COVID-19?

According to the World Health Organization, common signs include fever, coughing, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death. 

Symptoms range from mild to severe and may occur anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

If you feel sick now, it's possible you might have the common cold or flu (both have similar symptoms to COVID-19), Dr. Gregory Poland, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic, tells CNBC Make It. The only way to tell if you have COVID-19 is to test for it — although there's more reason to think you do if you're in the higher risk group, he says.

Those at high risk include people over 60 who also have serious long-term health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease, Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a press briefing. People who smoke or vape may also have worse outcomes, according to New York City officials.

When should I see a doctor?

The CDC recommends calling your doctor if you develop any of the main symptoms, and have been in close contact with an infected person or recently traveled to an area with widespread of COVID-19.

If you have symptoms of severe illness (i.e., high or very low body temperature, shortness of breath, confusion or feeling you might pass out) and are a high-risk individual, you should seek medical care in an emergency department.

The CDC advises calling ahead before going to a doctor's office or emergency room. Tell them about your symptoms and recent travels so they can prepare for your arrival. You may be asked to wear a face mask to avoid infecting others.

How do I get tested for COVID-19?

If your doctor thinks a test is appropriate, based on the most recent CDC guidelines, he or she can request a test. However, since the breadth of testing capacity is still unclear, there's no guarantee you'll get one right away.

In February, under mounting pressure from state and local officials, the US Food and Drug Administration expanded the types of labs that could run COVID-19 tests, allowing private national labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp to start testing. (As of March 10, 2020, at least 78 state and local health labs in the US have testing capacity, according to Association of Public Health Laboratories.)

Testing involves taking samples from the nose and mouth or, for seriously ill patients, the lungs. Timing for test results will vary depending on the lab. For some, like the Stanford Health Care Clinical Virology Laboratory, results can take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.

What if I test positive?

For the most part, the CDC suggests:

  • Staying at home (except to get medical care). Restrict activities outside of home. Avoid public places (i.e., work or school) and public transportation (i.e., trains, buses, ride-sharing services and taxis).
  • Separating yourself from others in your home. If you live with other people, stay in a separate room and, if possible, use a separate bathroom.
  • Wearing a face mask. If you can't wear a face mask (i.e., because it causes trouble breathing), then those who live with you should wear one when they're in the same room as you.
  • Washing your hands often. Do this with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you don't have access to soap and water, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

When can I go back to work?

If you're sick, the CDC advises staying home from work until at least 24 hours after your fever — 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) or greater — is gone. 

Your employer may have a pandemic preparedness plan in place, so make sure you speak with your supervisor about your options. (For more information, here's the CDC's Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers.)

Is there a treatment or vaccine available for COVID-19?

There are no antiviral medications that treat COVID-19 at this time, according to the CDC. However, just like any viral infection, Dr. Kesh says taking certain measures can help:

  • Getting plenty of rest.
  • Staying well hydrated.
  • Taking medication (i.e., acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen) to reduce fever and ease aches and pains. (Make sure you follow directions and keep track of all the ingredients and the doses.)

"Based on what we know so far, [for most people] it will probably be like when you're laid up in bed with the flu," says Dr. Kesh. "You'll start to feel sick, symptoms get worse until they peak, and then they gradually go away."

Jessica Migala is a Chicago-based health writer for HealthDay. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Health, Family Circle, Woman's Day and others. She is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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