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Order of COVID-19 symptoms tends to differ from flu

Researchers looked at over 50,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in China and found the symptoms tended to follow a certain order.

With COVID-19 cases spiking and flu season now underway, how can you tell difference between the two if you aren’t feeling well? A professor at USC said one of his doctoral candidates looking at early data noticed a pattern.

“The original data that we had access to really led us down this interesting path,” said Peter Kuhn, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California.

They looked at over 50,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in China and found the symptoms tended to follow this order:

  • Fever
  • Cough and muscle pain
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

This order is notably different from the flu. 

“You had an extended period of fever and that only subsequently was followed by cough, versus a flu,” Professor Kuhn said. “An onset of the flu, you started off with a cough and then it would be followed by fever.”

Professor Kuhn makes it clear this should NOT be taken as medical advice and doctors in San Diego County who are dealing with coronavirus patients agree. 

“The tricky thing with COVID-19 is that it’s behavior is very unpredictable,” said Doctor Michele Ritter, Director of the Covid-19 Infectious Disease Clinic at UC San Diego. She says we need to be cautious using early research like this because she doesn't want people to self-diagnose themselves and think they don't have COVID-19 when they actually do.

“I think we have to be careful to think that there's a clear path that COVID-19 takes,” Ritter added. “I don't think that we can assume that it you don't have a fever you don't have COVID-19 because there are plenty of patients who don't have fevers.”

Kuhn said their research is being updated as we learn more about COVID-19 with the hope that we can soon predict the severity of the disease coming our way. In the meantime, he and doctors agree - if you show any symptoms - get tested.

“If you have a symptom that could be consistent - something as little as a scratchy throat, low grade fever, headache, muscle aches, it's time right now to get tested,” said Ritter. 

And she does note one silver lining in all of this: Because people are taking more precautions with COVID-19 - washing hands, wearing a mask - they are seeing fewer influenza cases than normal for this time of year. That’s a big positive because those hospital resources are available for COVID-19 patients.

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