Maybe you’ve started sneezing or you have a runny or stuffy nose or just nasal congestion, and now you’re worried. Could this be coronavirus?
COVID-19 research studies and health organizations that outline COVID-19 symptoms don’t tend to list sneezing on the lists of symptoms or early symptoms. However, they often do list nasal congestion or a runny or stuffy nose as a possible symptom of coronavirus, though they’re not the most common.
Remember, though: a lot of people have allergies, so these symptoms are hardly unusual. Just because you’re sneezing or have nasal congestion, it doesn’t mean you have COVID-19. It could be a common cold, hay fever, allergies, the flu or something else. If you’re concerned that you might have COVID-19, you should check with your doctor.
There are some ways to glean whether allergies are more likely than COVID-19, although it’s not possible to know for sure without a test because COVID-19 symptoms can vary so widely. Allergies often “have more chronic symptoms and include sneezing, wheezing, and coughing,” according to Healthline.
Ramzi Yacoub, chief pharmacy officer for SingleCare, told Healthline that shortness of breath is the symptom that often indicates you might have COVID-19, not allergies or the flu. Shortness of breath in COVID-19 patients often doesn’t appear for several days, however. Curist points out that sneezing can occasionally occur in COVID-19 patients but that allergy symptoms “do NOT typically include fever, sore throat, or achiness,” which can be COVID-19 signs. In addition, allergy symptoms, such as itchy eyes, nose, throat and ears, aren’t common in COVID-19 patients. The site reports that fever is another differentiation point as it’s common in COVID-19 patients but not allergy sufferers. In other words, if you’re worried about your sneeze, consider all of your symptoms or lack thereof carefully. You should also consider history: In past allergy seasons, were your symptoms similar? Of course, it’s possible to have allergies and coronavirus.
Fox5 News also pointed out that allergies present with similar symptoms to some COVID-19 sufferers: “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. Remember, though, that COVID-19 really gets dangerous when it migrates to the lungs. Most people recover from mild COVID-19 infections.
Studies do show that nasal congestion can be an early indicator of coronavirus, though, 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.
The most common symptoms for coronavirus are generally listed as fever, shortness of breath and a dry cough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded its list of coronavirus symptoms. Nasal issues, including sneezing, didn’t make that list:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Repeated shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
But the World Health Organization is among those that do list a runny nose as a possible symptom of coronavirus.
The WHO 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 in studies of coronavirus, with the recognition that people’s bodies handle the virus in 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 & Sneezing Doesn’t Make Some Symptom Lists
CNN reports that if you have itchy eyes or a runny nose, you may have seasonal allergies or just a common cold. That’s because those common ailments are generally confined to the head and nasal areas.
In contrast, according to CNN, coronavirus and flu symptoms tend to affect the whole body. CNN says coronavirus and the flu are less likely to be associated with a runny nose because they “affect other systems and the lower respiratory tract,” although symptoms can include “a sore throat, a cough, a fever or shortness of breath.”
Shortness of breath and a fever are a good way to tell that it isn’t just seasonal allergies or a common cold. Furthermore, you’ll probably end up in bed with coronavirus or the flu, and it will be more obvious that you are sick.
The shortness of breath symptom is a really good indicator of coronavirus, but some people with the flu also get pneumonia, so that can be tricky to decipher. At the earliest stages, the symptoms for COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold can seem similar and even mild, according to CNN.
A runny nose has been documented in a small percentage of coronavirus patients, though. 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).
The article “Clinical Characteristics of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in China” was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
That study found that the most common coronavirus symptoms were fever and cough. This study found that, while nasal congestion could occur in coronavirus patients, it wasn’t common. In this study, only 4.8% of patients studied had nasal congestion (13.9% had a sore throat and 13.6% 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. Sneezing didn’t make the list:
“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% had a runny nose. The most common symptom was fever, which was reported by 96% of patients, followed by a cough (47%), myalgia or fatigue (31%), a little phlegm (20%), loss of appetite (18%), mild headache and dizziness (16%).
Here’s the symptom chart from that study. Sneezing didn’t make that list, either:
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.”
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).”
Loss of taste and smell and red-rimmed eyes have also emerged as possible symptoms of COVID-19.
Sometimes the virus leads to pneumonia, which is when it 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.
How do I know if I have COVID-19 or the regular flu? Harvard Medical School advises: “COVID-19 often causes symptoms similar to those a person with a bad cold or the flu would experience. And like the flu, the symptoms can progress and become life-threatening. Your doctor is more likely to suspect coronavirus if: you have respiratory symptoms and you recently traveled to countries with ongoing community spread of the COVID-19 virus, including China, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, or you have been exposed to someone suspected of having COVID-19, or there has been community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in your area.” In other words, context matters in diagnosis, too. You can read a deeper exploration of symptoms later in this article.
READ NEXT: Can You Get Coronavirus From Money?