TORONTO -- As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, here is what you need to know about the signs and symptoms of the novel coronavirus and what to do if you think you may be infected.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says there are four main COVID-19 symptoms to watch out for:

  • fever
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • pneumonia in both lungs

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), symptoms can also include:

  • tiredness
  • aches and pains
  • sore throat
  • diarrhea, nausea or runny nose in rare cases

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers these "emergency warning signs" of a possible COVID-19 infection, but notes that the list is not all-inclusive.

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

Symptoms can occur anytime within 14 days of a patient's exposure to the virus – and, as the virus can be transmitted from one person to another, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when exposure occurred.

The symptoms are common ones when it comes to respiratory diseases. In addition to COVID-19, they can suggest a far more typical illness such as influenza or the common cold. Some of those who contract the virus may never display any symptoms, and may pass it on to others without realizing they ever had it.

This makes it virtually impossible for the average person to determine whether their symptoms are being caused by the new coronavirus or something else.

According to PHAC, there are three main ways the virus that causes the disease can be transmitted: close personal contact such as shaking hands, respiratory droplets spread through coughs and sneezes, and touching a surface with the virus on it then touching one's own face without first handwashing.

There are also suggestions that COVID-19 might cause some patients to suddenly lose their senses of smell and/or taste, and several studies have found clues that pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, could be an overlooked symptom and transmission method of the virus.

As of April 2, there have been more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 and 127 related deaths in Canada.

Although initially, the vast majority of the reported illnesses were linked to travel or people who had been in contact with recent travellers, community spread has become much more prevalent.

WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Advice for Canadians is evolving rapidly as the pandemic grows.

The federal government is urging all Canadians to stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary to go out in public. All travellers returning to the country and anyone who has had contact with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 should self-isolate for 14 days. Some provinces have shut down non-essential businesses in order to further emphasize the need for physical distancing.

The government has also launched an online questionnaire that can be used as a self-assessment tool by anyone who is concerned that they may have COVID-19, and an app that provides up-to-date information and guidance regarding the virus.

The questionnaire advises whether users should visit an emergency room, contact telehealth, self-isolate or do nothing, and provides links to provincial and territorial advice when appropriate.

Those who must visit a health-care professional are advised to call ahead or tell them upon arrival that they have a respiratory illness. PHAC says that you may be asked to wear a mask to prevent the spread of the virus.

Doctors cannot provide any specific treatment for COVID-19 – there is no known cure or vaccine – but can ensure a patient's case is properly reported to public health authorities. The flu vaccine will not protect against the coronavirus.

Most people with mild symptoms of the coronavirus recover on their own.

"When you're sick, definitely stay home, cover your cough, wash your hands a lot. We can't repeat that too frequently," said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief officer of public health.

The WHO estimates that 80 per cent of COVID-19 patients will recover without the need for any medical intervention.

AVOIDING COVID-19

Even if you are not sick, public health officials are advising "physical distancing," which includes avoiding large gatherings and working from home when possible. Businesses and organizations across the country, as well as different levels of government, have announced closures, reduced services and limits on crowd gatherings to encourage social distancing.

Just as the new coronavirus presents similarly to other respiratory illnesses, advice for keeping it at bay runs along the same lines as tips for avoiding more commonplace colds and coughs.

PHAC says that people who appear healthy can improve their chances of staying that way if they avoid close contact with people who are sick, do not touch their face with unwashed hands, regularly wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds or more, and use their sleeves to cover coughs and sneezes.

There is an increased risk of more severe outcomes for people who are 65 or older, who have compromised immune systems or who have other underlying medical conditions, the government agency said.

The risk for testing positive with COVID-19 may be increased on cruise ships, heavily affected areas and international conferences and other large indoor gatherings, PHAC said.

Additional recommendations for day-to-day life include immediately disposing of used tissues and regularly cleaning surfaces that come into contact with human hands, such as toilets, doorknobs and smartphones.

Wearing face masks is not recommended unless illness has already set in, despite a rush on masks that has led to reports of shortages in North America.

The only situation in which masks should be used outside the health-care sector, experts say, is for those who are sick or in close contact with someone who is sick.

"If you're sick … putting a mask on a [healthy] person to prevent the transmission from the sick person is a smart thing to do," Tam said.

There is also no known evidence to suggest that animal-to-human infection has occurred in Canada. However, there are still "many unknowns" in this area, PHAC says.

If you are diagnosed with COVID-19 and you have a pet, PHAC advises against snuggling or kissing your pet, sharing a bed with them, having your pet sit on your lap or letting them lick you.

PHAC advises that people with COVID-19 should have another member of your household care for your pet, limit your pet’s contact with other people and animals and wash your hands before touching or feeding them.

With files from The Associated Press