Signs and symptoms to determine if a patient presenting in primary care or hospital outpatient settings has COVID-19 disease

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Some people with SARS-CoV-2 infection remain asymptomatic, whilst in others the infection can cause mild to moderate COVID-19 disease and COVID-19 pneumonia, leading some patients to require intensive care support and, in some cases, to death, especially in older adults. Symptoms such as fever or cough, and signs such as oxygen saturation or lung auscultation findings, are the first and most readily available diagnostic information. Such information could be used to either rule out COVID-19 disease, or select patients for further diagnostic testing.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the diagnostic accuracy of signs and symptoms to determine if a person presenting in primary care or to hospital outpatient settings, such as the emergency department or dedicated COVID-19 clinics, has COVID-19 disease or COVID-19 pneumonia.

SEARCH METHODS: On 27 April 2020, we undertook electronic searches in the Cochrane COVID-19 Study Register and the University of Bern living search database, which is updated daily with published articles from PubMed and Embase and with preprints from medRxiv and bioRxiv. In addition, we checked repositories of COVID-19 publications. We did not apply any language restrictions.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Studies were eligible if they included patients with suspected COVID-19 disease, or if they recruited known cases with COVID-19 disease and controls without COVID-19. Studies were eligible when they recruited patients presenting to primary care or hospital outpatient settings. Studies including patients who contracted SARS-CoV-2 infection while admitted to hospital were not eligible. The minimum eligible sample size of studies was 10 participants. All signs and symptoms were eligible for this review, including individual signs and symptoms or combinations. We accepted a range of reference standards including reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), clinical expertise, imaging, serology tests and World Health Organization (WHO) or other definitions of COVID-19.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Pairs of review authors independently selected all studies, at both title and abstract stage and full-text stage. They resolved any disagreements by discussion with a third review author. Two review authors independently extracted data and resolved disagreements by discussion with a third review author. Two review authors independently assessed risk of bias using the QUADAS-2 checklist. Analyses were descriptive, presenting sensitivity and specificity in paired forest plots, in ROC (receiver operating characteristic) space and in dumbbell plots. We did not attempt meta-analysis due to the small number of studies, heterogeneity across studies and the high risk of bias.

MAIN RESULTS: We identified 16 studies including 7706 participants in total. Prevalence of COVID-19 disease varied from 5% to 38% with a median of 17%. There were no studies from primary care settings, although we did find seven studies in outpatient clinics (2172 participants), and four studies in the emergency department (1401 participants). We found data on 27 signs and symptoms, which fall into four different categories: systemic, respiratory, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular. No studies assessed combinations of different signs and symptoms and results were highly variable across studies. Most had very low sensitivity and high specificity; only six symptoms had a sensitivity of at least 50% in at least one study: cough, sore throat, fever, myalgia or arthralgia, fatigue, and headache. Of these, fever, myalgia or arthralgia, fatigue, and headache could be considered red flags (defined as having a positive likelihood ratio of at least 5) for COVID-19 as their specificity was above 90%, meaning that they substantially increase the likelihood of COVID-19 disease when present. Seven studies carried a high risk of bias for selection of participants because inclusion in the studies depended on the applicable testing and referral protocols, which included many of the signs and symptoms under study in this review. Five studies only included participants with pneumonia on imaging, suggesting that this is a highly selected population. In an additional four studies, we were unable to assess the risk for selection bias. These factors make it very difficult to determine the diagnostic properties of these signs and symptoms from the included studies. We also had concerns about the applicability of these results, since most studies included participants who were already admitted to hospital or presenting to hospital settings. This makes these findings less applicable to people presenting to primary care, who may have less severe illness and a lower prevalence of COVID-19 disease. None of the studies included any data on children, and only one focused specifically on older adults. We hope that future updates of this review will be able to provide more information about the diagnostic properties of signs and symptoms in different settings and age groups.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The individual signs and symptoms included in this review appear to have very poor diagnostic properties, although this should be interpreted in the context of selection bias and heterogeneity between studies. Based on currently available data, neither absence nor presence of signs or symptoms are accurate enough to rule in or rule out disease. Prospective studies in an unselected population presenting to primary care or hospital outpatient settings, examining combinations of signs and symptoms to evaluate the syndromic presentation of COVID-19 disease, are urgently needed. Results from such studies could inform subsequent management decisions such as self-isolation or selecting patients for further diagnostic testing. We also need data on potentially more specific symptoms such as loss of sense of smell. Studies in older adults are especially important.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD013665
Pages (from-to)1-93
JournalThe Cochrane database of systematic reviews
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2020


  • Ambulatory Care
  • Arthralgia/diagnosis
  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections/complications
  • Fatigue/diagnosis
  • Fever/diagnosis
  • Headache/diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Myalgia/diagnosis
  • Outpatient Clinics, Hospital/statistics & numerical data
  • Pandemics
  • Physical Examination
  • Pneumonia, Viral/complications
  • Primary Health Care
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Selection Bias
  • Symptom Assessment/classification


Dive into the research topics of 'Signs and symptoms to determine if a patient presenting in primary care or hospital outpatient settings has COVID-19 disease'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this