Why We Get Runny Noses And Why It's Probably Not Coronavirus

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Many of us are now experiencing peak paranoia given the global outbreak of coronavirus so any little sign can spark a concern. For many, a runny nose in winter is the normal but in recent weeks, search terms have been trending with Australians asking whether a runny nose is a sign of coronavirus. We asked three medical experts why it happens and whether we should be worried.

According to the World Health Organisation, the most common symptoms of coronavirus, more accurately known as COVID-19, include fever, dry cough, and tiredness.

It also acknowledges that, while less common, other strange symptoms can include aches and pains, nasal congestion, headache, conjunctivitis, sore throat, diarrhea, loss of taste or smell or a rash on skin or discoloration of fingers or toes. Those extra symptoms mean it can be hard for many to tell whether their symptoms are the start of the contagious virus or something else.

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In the case of nasal congestion, or as most of us know it, a stuffed or runny nose, could it really be an early sign of coronavirus?

Runny noses can be an allergic reaction or a sign of a virus

Professor Robert Booy, an infectious diseases expert from the University of Sydney, said there were three main causes of a runny nose — acute infection, an allergic response or a blockage of sinuses.

"An infection by a virus leads to inflammation, because the virus gets into the human cells, and the human cells react by producing mucous, which tries to flesh out the virus out of our system down through the nose and out through the mouth," Professor Booy said to Lifehacker Australia over the phone.

An infectious diseases specialist at Australian National University, Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake told Lifehacker Australia that a whole range of different triggers could cause you to have a runny noise outside of an infection.

"Triggers include cold weather, changes in humidity, allergies, strong odours, spicy foods and even strong alcoholic drinks. And of course, infections," Professor Senanayake said in an email, adding that it could sometimes be caused by a physiological reaction to colder weather.

"The cold weather can stimulate nerves that supply the inner lining of the nose to produce mucus," Professor Senanayake said.

"Many will recall stepping out of a warm house into outdoor winter weather and then developing a runny nose."

But it's not as simple as the colder weather triggering a stuffed or runny nose. Professor Booy explained it was actually more to do with a societal and behavioural change in society that led to winter being high time for colds and flus.

"In simple terms, because we spend more time inside, we are more likely to contract an infection from a family member or a work, mate, or a friend." Professor Booy said.

"I would guess that in the four months from May to September, you would get twice as many infections in your respiratory tract as you would in the eight months from September to May."

Associate Professor Deborah Friedman from healthcare provider Barwon Health added the viruses that caused the common cold just liked the weather better.

"The viruses that typically cause the common cold circulate and replicate better at colder temperatures," Professor Friedman said.

A runny nose alone is not likely to be a sign of coronavirus

All these factors contribute to some of the reasons while you'll likely experience benign symptoms during a few winter mornings this year but without more serious symptoms presenting, it's probably not likely you have coronavirus.

"Only 4.8 per cent of people with COVID-19 had 'nasal congestion' in the Chinese data," Professor Senanayake said

"Some of them may have had a runny nose too but it isn't stated. In other words, runny nose appears to be one of the least common symptoms with COVID-19 but it can happen."

A runny nose alone, while still considered a potential symptom in a minority, is probably not enough to warrant a test but Professor Booy believes it could be more serious when paired with other severe symptoms.

"If you have a runny nose, it's much more likely to be a simple cold virus whereas if you've got the symptoms of a fever and a cough, go and get tested for COVID-19," Professor Booy said.

"If all you've got is a runny nose, just keep an eye on it. Wash your hands regularly, keep your social distance and observe respiratory etiquette."

Still, given the nature of the times, a runny nose might just be enough to warrant a day working from home. Professor Friedman said while a runny nose could be an allergy or any other number of triggers, it could also be evidence of a virus, which is best not spread during this time.

"It is evidence of a common cold, which may be transmitted to other people in the workplace," Professor Friedman added.

"If a workplace involves separate offices, this may not be unsafe, however, a runny nose would be a good opportunity to work from home."

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