Sneezing an Unlikely Coronavirus Symptom: A Comparison Guide

Humans are bad at comparing overlapping data like medical symptoms.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

The arrival of spring brings seasonal allergies and common colds. These typically feature sneezing, runny noses, itchy eyes, and copious tearing. Waking up with crusted lids, or “sleep sand,” is another common sign of allergy.

Right now being near anyone who is sneezing or coughing understandably alarms many of us. Are we going to get infected with coronavirus? What should we do? Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds, certainly. But it also helps to remember one of our cognitive weaknesses: We are simply bad at comparing variable data such as those of medical symptoms. And we become even worse at it if we approach it emotionally, as surely everyone is doing in this heightened state of worldwide vigilance.

Trust the Experts

Rely on experts to inform you. According to a late February report by the World Health Organization that examined 56,000 Chinese patients, sneezing and nasal congestion occur in only 4.8 percent of coronavirus cases. As the nearby table shows, the telltale symptoms are fever (88%), dry cough (68%), and fatigue (38 percent). Shortness of breath is also common. Perusing the table should help allay some worries.

WHO, American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology
Source: WHO, American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology

The overlap between symptoms of coronavirus, colds, and allergies is partly why widespread testing is essential. Testing distinguishes true positives from false ones so that appropriate action can be taken. It is possible for someone to simultaneously have both a coronavirus infection and a seasonal allergy or common cold. Testing helps sort out the different possibilities.

We lack adequate coronavirus testing

Unfortunately, the U.S. lags woefully behind other countries in testing. Our lack of preparation means that we don’t know the denominator—how many people are actually infected out of the overall population. This makes it difficult to put the number of deaths and current infections in perspective. It makes it scary, too, and is why experts forecast that case numbers are rapidly going to escalate.

As of this writing, 350,000 Americans have been tested for the coronavirus, up from just 10,000 as of March 12. But 350,00 out of a population of 327 million is a miniscule 0.001%. The WHO website offers advice for both the public and health workers, and features the latest alerts.

How can I reduce my risk?

Start with the obvious: Wash your hands frequently, reduce exposure to others, and don’t leave the house if you feel unwell. Maintain social distancing. If you must be among others, such as at the pharmacy or grocery store, stay 3 feet away, especially if you are talking. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Our hands touch numerous surfaces every hour and they pick up an assortment of viruses, not just corona.

Block that sneeze and cough. Droplets from your nose and mouth spread viruses, so cough and sneeze into your elbow if you don’t have a tissue. If you do use a tissue dispose of it promptly. This will shield those around you not only from coronavirus but those that cause colds and the flu.

Clean your phone. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine reports that coronavirus survives up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel. On cardboard, no viable virus was detected after 24 hours, which means that mail and packages are relatively safe to handle. Still, after opening and discarding deliveries, it's a good idea to wash your hands.

The fact that corona endures on plastic means that any virus that lands on your phone could last for days. Don’t hand it to others to show them interesting videos and posts. Talking on the phone generates an invisible spray of airborne droplets. Someone infected, even if showing no symptoms, can harbor millions of virus particles in the mucous at the back of their throat. Every time they make a call they spray it onto their phone. To clean yours, dampen a cloth or cotton ball with rubbing alcohol or a small amount of soap and water.

Realize that human nature has a hard time weighing complex data. And keep yourself realistically informed by experts.