Symptoms of coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) can range in severity and are likely to appear 2–14 days after exposure to the virus. In some cases, older adults may develop symptoms not seen in others, or symptoms may take longer to develop.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear 2–14 days after exposure to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the novel coronavirus.
In this article, we describe symptoms of COVID-19 in older adults and when to seek emergency care.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
Also, as the CDC observe, in adults aged 65 or older, typical symptoms may present differently. For example, because the normal body temperature of an older adult can be lower, a temperature indicating a fever may fall below the typical threshold.
Some older adults may develop atypical symptoms or take longer to develop symptoms.
When taking the temperature of someone aged 65 or over, the following can indicate an infection:
- a single reading of 100°F (37.8°C) or higher
- multiple readings higher than 99°F (37.2°C)
- a rise of more than 2°F (1.1°C) above a person’s typical temperature
According to one 2020 review of the available evidence, older adults with COVID-19 may experience:
- a sore throat
- unexplained hypoxia — low levels of oxygen in the blood
- an increased heart rate
- rapid breathing
Other symptoms of COVID-19 include:
- a cough
- a fever
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- a new loss of taste or smell
- congestion or a runny nose
- a headache
- muscle or body aches
- nausea or vomiting
People with dementia may not be able to communicate that they are feeling unwell.
However, increased confusion can be a sign that a person with dementia is ill, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
If an older person experiences COVID-19 symptoms, it is important to contact a healthcare provider for advice.
The best treatment may involve rest, over-the-counter medications, and staying hydrated.
If possible, follow the CDC’s guidelines, which recommend:
- staying at home, except when receiving medical care
- monitoring the symptoms
- limiting contact with others
- wearing a cloth face covering
- washing the hands often
It can also help to create a care plan. This should include clear information about:
- health conditions
- healthcare providers
- emergency contacts
- end-of-life care preferences
In nursing homes and long-term care facilities
For older adults living in these facilities, the CDC recommend:
- carefully following all instructions about preventing infection
- notifying staff of any symptoms
- asking staff about the specific safety precautions, such as whether and how they are limiting visitors
If a caregiver suspects that someone has COVID-19, they may:
- move the person into a private room with a private bathroom
- wear added personal protective equipment while providing care
- transfer the person to an appropriate facility if they cannot provide adequate care
Older adults and people with preexisting medical conditions appear to be more vulnerable to severe complications of COVID-19.
Therefore, it is important for anyone concerned about possible exposure to the virus to speak with a healthcare provider. Also, it is crucial for anyone who experiences any of the common symptoms of COVID-19 to let a doctor know.
Seek emergency care if any of the following occur, the CDC advise:
- a color change in the lips or face — which may appear bluish in people with lighter skin or whitish or grayish in people with darker skin
- an inability to wake up or stay awake
- new confusion
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- trouble breathing
However, these are not all of the signs that a person needs urgent attention — anyone who has severe or concerning symptoms should receive emergency medical care.
To avoid contracting SARS-CoV-2, follow the CDC’s guidelines, which include:
- washing the hands often, for at least 20 seconds at a time, with soap and water
- using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, if washing the hands is not possible
- avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- staying away from people with COVID-19
- keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from other people
- covering the mouth and nose around others, unless it causes difficulty breathing
- covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then discarding it
- cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
- being aware of any symptoms
- if symptoms develop, checking for a fever and notifying a healthcare provider
The CDC recommend that people wear cloth face masks in public places where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people who do not know that they have contracted it, including those who are asymptomatic. People should wear cloth face masks while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home are available here. Note: It is critical that surgical masks and N95 respirators are reserved for healthcare workers.
Older adults should speak with a healthcare provider to ensure that vaccinations and other preventive measures are up to date.
Anyone receiving treatment for an ongoing condition should try to continue their regular treatment plan and consult a doctor before changing it.
Also, try to have at least a 30-day supply of medication. If possible, request an extra supply to reduce trips to the pharmacy.
Do not hesitate to ask a healthcare provider about any concerns regarding an underly conditions. Also, if any COVID-19 symptoms develop, contact a healthcare provider right away.
Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals will still supply care, but they may do so differently or postpone some appointments.
Anyone who needs urgent care — regardless of whether they have COVID-19 symptoms — should contact emergency services. They have measures in place to prevent the possible transmission of the virus.
Anyone without a designated doctor should contact their nearest or preferred local community health center or health department.
The symptoms of COVID-19 in older adults are largely the same as those in others. However, older adults can develop different symptoms or take longer to develop common symptoms.
Also, because the regular body temperature of some older adults is lower, a fever may involve a single reading of 100°F (37.8°C) or multiple readings higher than 99°F (37.2°C).
Anyone who develops severe or concerning symptoms should call 911 or otherwise seek immediate medical attention.
If an older person if receiving treatment for an existing condition, they should continue their treatment plan. Consult a doctor before making any changes.
As always, taking precautionary steps — such as frequently washing the hand, wearing a cloth face covering, and physical distancing — is crucial.