Background: In November 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) created interim guidance on how to integrate testing for SARS-CoV-2 into existing influenza surveillance systems. Influenza-like illness (ILI) and severe acute respiratory illness (SARI) case definitions have been used to specify the case definition of COVID-19 for surveillance purposes. This review aims to assess whether the common clinical features of COVID-19 have changed to the point that the criteria used to identify both COVID-19 and influenza in surveillance programs needs to be altered.

Methods: A systematic review of reviews following PRISMA-P guidelines was conducted using the "COVID-19 evidence review" database from August 19, 2020, to August 19, 2021. Reviews providing pooled estimates of the prevalence of clinical features of COVID-19 within the general population, diagnosed by polymerase chain reaction or rapid diagnostic test, were included. These were critically appraised and sensitivity analysis was undertaken to examine potential causes of bias.

Results: Fourteen reviews were identified, including three on adults only and three on children only. For all reviews, combined fever (median prevalence = 73.0%, IQR = 58.3-78.7) and cough (45.1%, IQR = 28.9-54.0) were the most common features. These were followed by loss of taste or smell (45.1%, IQR = 28.9-54.0), hypoxemia (33%, one review), fatigue (26.4%, IQR = 9.0-39.4) and expectoration (23.9%, IQR = 23.3-25.5). Fever and cough continued to be the most prevalent features for adults and children, with subsequent symptoms being similar for adults only. However, the pattern differed for children, with headache (34.3%, IQR = 18-50.7) and nasal congestion (20%, one review) being the third and fourth commonest symptoms.

Conclusions: The prevalent features found in this recent review were the same as the ones identified at the beginning of the pandemic. Therefore, the current approach of using the ILI and SARI criteria which incorporate fever and cough will identify COVID-19 cases in addition to influenza. Interestingly, children may present with different features, as headaches and nasal congestion were more common in this group. Future research could examine this further and investigate whether symptomology changes with new variants of COVID-19.


JoGH is a fully open access journal, publishing under the CC BY 4.0 licence.

Cite as

Lee, B., Ashcroft, T., Agyei-Manu, E., Farfan de los Godos, E., Leow, A., Krishan, P., Kulkarni, D., Nundy, M., Hartnup, K., Shi, T., McSwiggan, E., Nair, H., Theodoratou, E., McQuillan, R. & Usher Network for COVID-19 Evidence Reviews (UNCOVER) Group 2022, 'Clinical features of COVID-19 for integration of COVID-19 into influenza surveillance: A systematic review', Journal of Global Health, 12, article no: 05012. https://doi.org/10.7189/jogh.12.05012

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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