We get it. We’ve been there too. You’ve got a runny or stuffy nose, and now you’re worried. Could this be coronavirus?
With COVID-19 fundamentally changing life around the world, many people are wondering whether their symptoms match coronavirus. Among the questions some have: Is a runny or stuffy nose an early symptom that you have COVID-19? After all, a lot of us have allergies, so these symptoms are hardly uncommon.
Compounding the anxiety: Coronavirus symptoms are often very similar to those for the regular flu or common cold. Testing is hard to come by unless you’re hospitalized or a healthcare worker. We live in uncertain times, and we’re dealing with an unknown illness. Although this is nothing to joke about, most people do recover from coronavirus. Keep in mind: It’s when coronavirus migrates to the lungs that you’ve got a real problem.
The answer now: Yes, a runny nose or stuffy nose can be a symptom of coronavirus, and it can also be an early indicator, as COVID-19 symptoms generally start out mild, but it’s not the most common symptom (you can see a breakdown later in this article). In fact, it’s one of the least common, at least according to some research studies. Still, any symptoms are something you should closely monitor and consider talking to your primary care doctor or a coronavirus hotline about.
The most common symptoms for coronavirus are generally listed as fever, shortness of breath, and a dry cough, however. But the World Health Organization is among those that does list a runny nose as a possible symptom of coronavirus.
The World Health Organization says:
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don’t feel unwell. Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. Around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.
Let’s tease out how common a runny nose is though in studies of coronavirus, with the recognition that people’s bodies handle the virus different ways. Not everyone has the same symptoms at the same stages.
“The most common symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, are fever, cough and shortness of breath,” according to John Hopkins Medicine. “Some patients also have body aches, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. If you have a sore throat and think you have been exposed to the new coronavirus, contact a health care provider by phone and discuss your risk.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Yes, a Runny Nose Can Be a Sign of Coronavirus, But It’s Not the Most Common
First of all, just because you have a runny nose doesn’t mean you have coronavirus. You might have the flu, a common cold, or something else. There might be something non-viral going on of concern. Your doctor is better equipped to tell you that (don’t take medical advice over the Internet!). But credible research studies and governmental sites have outlined the common symptoms for coronavirus. A runny nose has been documented in a small percentage of coronavirus patients. Also be aware that the virus has an incubation stage (symptoms appear between 2-14 days), and the symptoms themselves can take time to worsen (even 8 days or more). However, again, most people recover from COVID-19.
In general, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, coronaviruses (of which there are many – COVID-19 is only one), can cause these symptoms:
Fox5 News pointed out that allergies present with similar symptoms: “sneezing, itchy eyes and a runny nose.” Whether you’ve commonly suffered such seasonal allergies in the past could be an indicator that’s all it is this time too, the station reported, noting that if you get relief from your allergy medication it might be just that.
Some studies into COVID-19 patients have found that the typical reliance on a trifecta of top symptoms (fever, dry cough, shortness of breath) is missing the fact that COVID-19 patients can present with a longer list of symptoms. However, some of those studies have focused on digestive issues. A new study from the Wuhan Medical Treatment Expert Group for COVID-19 appeared in The American Journal of Gastroenterology. It studied 204 people who received medical care for COVID-19. You can find the study here. The researchers found that digestive problems were far more common in coronavirus patients than other studies indicated, writing that “half of patients in our cohort reported a digestive symptom.” However, that statistic was inflated by including people reporting a loss of appetite.
The absence of symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you’re home free either. The article “Clinical Characteristics of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in China” was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That article noted, “During the first 2 months of the current outbreak, Covid-19 spread rapidly throughout China and caused varying degrees of illness. Patients often presented without fever, and many did not have abnormal radiologic findings.” Thus, although fever is often cited as a leading indicator of coronavirus, an absence of a fever does not mean that you don’t have it, either.
However, this study also found that the most common coronavirus symptoms were fever and cough. This study found that, while a runny nose (labeled nasal congestion) could occur in coronavirus patients, it wasn’t common. In this study, only 4.8 percent of patients studied had nasal congestion (13.9 percent had a sore throat and 13.6 percent had a headache).
“The median incubation period was 4 days (interquartile range, 2 to 7). The median age of the patients was 47 years (interquartile range, 35 to 58); 0.9% of the patients were younger than 15 years of age. A total of 41.9% were female. Fever was present in 43.8% of the patients on admission but developed in 88.7% during hospitalization,” the researchers reported. “The second most common symptom was cough (67.8%); nausea or vomiting (5.0%) and diarrhea (3.8%) were uncommon. Among the overall population, 23.7% had at least one coexisting illness (e.g., hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”
Here’s the list of symptoms with percentages found in that research study:
“Emerging 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Pneumonia“ is another research study that broke down the percentages of symptoms in Chinese patients with the virus.
That study of coronavirus patients found that only 4 percent had a runny nose. The most common symptom was fever, which was reported by 96 percent of patients, followed by a cough (47 percent), a little phlegm (20 percent), myalgia or fatigue (31 percent), mild headache and dizziness (16 percent), and loss of appetite (18 percent).
Here’s the symptom chart from that study:
Harvard Medical School does list nasal congestion on its symptom list. According to Harvard Medical School, “some people infected with the virus have no symptoms. When the virus does cause symptoms, common ones include low-grade fever, body aches, coughing, nasal congestion, and sore throat. However, COVID-19 can occasionally cause more severe symptoms like high fever, severe cough, and shortness of breath, which often indicates pneumonia.”
It’s not hard to find people on the Internet who claim that they know someone who has coronavirus (or they do) and a runny nose was among the other symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus symptoms “may appear 2-14 days after exposure (based on the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses).” The site lists the most common symptoms as:
Shortness of breath
The Australian government explains, “If you develop symptoms (fever, a cough, sore throat, tiredness or shortness of breath) within 14 days of leaving country or region that is at higher risk for COVID-19, or within 14 days of last contact of a confirmed case, you should arrange to see your doctor for urgent assessment.”
Loss of taste and smell and red rimmed eyes have also emerged as possibly symptoms of COVID-19.
Sometimes the virus leads to pneumonia, which is when the virus gets more serious and can require hospitalization.
What is the incubation period? “Because this coronavirus has just been discovered, the time from exposure to symptom onset (known as the incubation period) for most people has yet to be determined. Based on current information, symptoms could appear as soon as three days after exposure to as long as 13 days later. Recently published research found that on average, the incubation period is about five days,” says Harvard.
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