COVID-19 symptoms

Definition

COVID-19 is a highly infectious respiratory illness caused by a new, or novel, virus. COVID-19 is spreading quickly throughout the world and within the United States.

COVID-19 symptoms can range from mild to severe, and some people have died from the illness. The main symptoms are:

Some people may have no symptoms at all or have some, but not all of the symptoms.

Other cold or flu-like symptoms also may appear, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of sense of smell (anosmia) or taste (ageusia)

Symptoms may develop within 2 to 14 days after you are exposed to the virus. Most often, symptoms appear around 5 days after exposure. However, you can spread the virus even when you do not have symptoms.

More severe symptoms that require seeking medical help right away include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure that persists
  • Confusion
  • Blue lips or face

Older people and people with existing health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease have a higher risk of developing severe illness.

Alternative Names

Coronavirus novel 2019 - symptoms; 2019 Novel coronavirus - symptoms; SARS-Co-V2 - symptoms

Considerations

Some symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of the common cold and the flu, so it can be hard to know for sure if you have the virus. But COVID-19 is not a cold, and it is not a flu.

The only way to know if you have COVID-19 is to be tested. But not everyone with symptoms needs to be tested. Health care providers must follow specific guidelines for who should be tested. These guidelines currently prioritize people at higher risk for serious illness as well as health care workers and first responders with symptoms.

This means that you could have mild symptoms of the illness and not meet the criteria for testing at this time. Most people with the illness have mild to moderate symptoms and recover fully. Whether you get tested or not, if you have symptoms of COVID-19, you should avoid contact with other people so you don't spread the illness.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) consider COVID-19 a serious public health threat. For the most up-to-date news and information about COVID-19, you can visit the following websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus (COVID-19) -- www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

World Health Organization website. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic -- www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.

Causes

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can affect people and animals. They can cause mild to severe respiratory illnesses.

COVID-19 is thought to spread to people within close contact (about 6 feet or 1.8 meters). When someone with the illness coughs or sneezes, infected droplets spray into the air. You can catch the illness if you breathe in or touch these particles.

Home Care

If you have COVID-19 or think you have it, you must isolate yourself at home and avoid contact with other people, both inside and outside your home, to avoid spreading the illness. This is called home isolation or self quarantine.

  • As much as possible, stay in one room and away from others in your home. Use a separate bathroom if you can. Do not leave your home except to get medical care if needed.
  • Use a face mask when you are with people in the same room and when you see your health care provider. If you can't wear a mask, people in your home should wear a mask if they need to be in the same room with you.
  • Avoid contact with pets or other animals. (SARS-CoV-2 can spread from people to animals, but it is not known how often this happens). Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing. Throw away the tissue after use.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Do this before eating or preparing food, after using the toilet, and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Do not share personal items such as cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding. Wash anything you have used in soap and water. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) if soap and water are not available.
  • Clean all "high-touch" areas in the home, such as doorknobs, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, toilets, phones, tablets, and counters and other surfaces. Use a household cleaning spray and follow instructions for use.
  • You should remain at home and avoid contact with people until your provider tells you it is safe to resume your regular activities.

To help treat the symptoms of COVID-19, the following tips may help.

  • Rest and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help reduce fever. Sometimes, health care providers advise you to use both types of medicine. Take the recommended amount to reduce fever. DO NOT use ibuprofen in children 6 months or younger.
  • Aspirin works well to treat fever in adults. DO NOT give aspirin to a child (under age 18 years) unless your child's provider tells you to.
  • A lukewarm bath or sponge bath may help cool a fever. Keep taking medicine -- otherwise your temperature might go back up.
  • If you have a dry, tickling cough, try cough drops or hard candy.
  • Use a vaporizer or take a steamy shower to increase moisture in the air and help soothe a dry throat and cough.
  • Do not smoke, and stay away from secondhand smoke.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

You should contact your health care provider right away:

  • If you think you have been exposed to COVID-19
  • If you have a cough, fever, or shortness of breath and think you may have been exposed to COVID-19
  • If you have COVID-19 and your symptoms are getting worse

Call 911 or your local emergency number if you have:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Confusion
  • Blue lips or face

Before you go to a doctor's office or hospital emergency department (ED), call ahead and tell them that you have or think you may have COVID-19. Tell them about any underlying conditions you might have, such as heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease. Wear a cloth face mask when you visit the office or ED, unless it makes it hard to breathe. This will help protect other people you come in contact with.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your provider will ask about your symptoms, any recent travel, and any possible exposure to COVID-19. Your provider may take swab samples from the back of your nose and throat. If needed, your provider may also take other samples, such as blood or sputum.

If your symptoms do not indicate a medical emergency, your provider may decide to monitor your symptoms while you recover at home. You will have to remain away from others within your home and not leave the house until your provider says you can stop home isolation. For more serious symptoms, you may need to go to the hospital for care.

Images

COVID-19
Thermometer temperature
Respiratory system
Upper respiratory tract
Lower respiratory tract

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Evaluating and testing persons for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-criteria.html. Updated March 14, 2020. Accessed April 11, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Interim guidance for implementing home care of people not requiring hospitalization for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/guidance-home-care.html. Updated March 20, 2020. Accessed April 11, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Priorities for testing patients with suspected COVID-19 infection. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/priority-testing-patients.pdf.  Accessed April 6, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Symptoms of coronavirus. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html. Updated March 20, 2020. Accessed April 6, 2020.

World Health Organization website. Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19). www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses. Updated April 8, 2020. Accessed April 8, 2020.

Review Date: 
4/11/2020
Reviewed By: 
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.