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Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
Even though the pandemic isn’t news anymore, it can still be difficult to figure out if your symptoms are a sign of coronavirus or something else. “The symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to other respiratory viruses, which makes it difficult to differentiate from the other pathogens,” says Dr. Patrick J. Kenney, DO, FACOI, a double-board certified Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease specialist. He explains that early symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, and fever. Let’s look at what other symptoms you can expect.
Signs and symptoms of coronavirus
After you’ve been exposed to the virus, it can take some time for the first symptoms to appear. On average, it takes about five days for the first symptoms to appear, though the range is usually between 2–14 days (Lauer, 2020).
The symptoms of COVID-19 include:
- Fever and chills
- Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- A loss of taste or smell
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
Most people who are infected with the coronavirus will experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and fully recover without special treatment. But COVID-19 can range from mild to severe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one out of every six people who get COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops breathing problems (WHO, 2020). Certain people, such as those over the age of 65 or people with underlying medical conditions, are at higher risk of developing severe symptoms.
Trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or the inability to wake up, and bluish lips or face are signs that medical attention is required.
Although most people with COVID-19 will only have upper respiratory symptoms, like a cough, it is also possible to develop a severe lung infection (pneumonia) when infected with the virus. Pneumonia typically requires hospitalization for treatment.
COVID-19 symptoms vs. the common cold vs. the flu
COVID-19 can be hard to diagnose because some symptoms can look similar to other respiratory infections, like influenza and the common cold. A loss of your sense of taste or smell, as well as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, are all more common with COVID than with the flu or the common cold.
While there’s no treatment for the common cold, there are treatments for the flu, and determining whether it’s one of those two infections or whether it’s COVID-19 is important to prevent the further spread of the virus. A test can determine which one you have, and a healthcare provider can offer the best treatment plan.
Allergies vs. COVID-19: how to tell the difference
While about 80% of COVID-19 cases are mild or asymptomatic, COVID-19 is typically more dangerous than the flu (influenza virus). The global fatality rate from this strain of coronavirus is worse than that of influenza. While the numbers are not precise, the global fatality rate from COVID-19, (that is, the chance that a person infected with the coronavirus will die from it) is around 2%. Those numbers vary from place to place, though, with the highest rates of fatality from the virus in Yemen (19%) and Italy (13.2%) (Johns Hopkins, n.d.; Hasan, 2021). Over the last ten years, the average mortality rate for influenza has been about 0.1%, meaning about one in a thousand people who catch the flu end up dying from it (Knight, 2020).
What to do if you’re experiencing symptoms
In mild COVID-19 cases, in-person treatment is typically not necessary. There are many options for contact-free health assessments to determine if treatment is required. Testing is widespread and available at local pharmacies, supermarkets, and urgent care locations. There are also at-home COVID testing options available.
If you’re experiencing mild respiratory infection symptoms, stay home and self-quarantine to limit exposure to others. Speak with a healthcare provider who can help you decide if you need to get tested.
When is it time to seek medical attention?
If you have symptoms of severe COVID-19, call your healthcare provider or seek medical attention. Severe symptoms include:
- Chest pain or pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Paleness or blue or gray color in skin, lips, or nails
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021a, February 22). Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Retrieved on Sept. 10, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/symptoms.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021b, March 17). What to do if You Are Sick. Retrieved on Sept. 18, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html
- Hasan, M. N., Haider, N., Stigler, F. L., Khan, R. A., McCoy, D., Zumla, A., et al. (2021). The global case-fatality rate of COVID-19 has been declining since May 2020. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 104(6), 2176–2184. Advance online publication. doi: 10.4269/ajtmh.20-1496. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33882025/
- Johns Hopkins University. (n.d.). Mortality analyses. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality
- Knight, V. (2020, March 2). In An Exchange About Coronavirus, Homeland Security Chief Gets Flu Mortality Rate Wrong. Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/fact-check-coronavirus-homeland-security-chief-flu-mortality-rate/
- Lauer, S. A., Grantz, K. H., & Bi, Q. (2020, May 22). The incubation period of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) from publicly reported confirmed cases: Estimation and application. Annals of Internal Medicine, 172(9), 577-582. doi: 10.7326M20-0504 Retrieved on Nov. 1, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32150748/
- Onder, G., Rezza, G., & Brusaferro, S. (2020). Case-Fatality Rate and Characteristics of Patients Dying in Relation to COVID-19 in Italy. JAMA 323(18):1775–1776. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.4683, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2763667
- Reuters. (2020). Coronavirus incubation could be as long as 27 days, Chinese provincial government says. Retrieved on Sept. 17, 2021 from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-incubation/coronavirus-incubation-could-be-as-long-as-27-days-chinese-provincial-government-says-idUSKCN20G06W
- WHO: Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19). (2020, February 23). Retrieved on Feb. 29, 2020 from https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.