As the coronavirus pandemic continues, researchers are learning more about how the virus may impact different groups. In some cases, people may experience mild cases of COVID-19 with symptoms that may resolve at home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that people with COVID-19 can experience varying symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Additionally, a 2020 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) adds that roughly 80% of people with COVID-19 experience mild or no symptoms.

However, people with mild COVID-19 symptoms will still likely feel unwell. They are also still at risk of deteriorating and developing more severe symptoms.

People with mild COVID-19 symptoms can potentially spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus to others. Therefore, it is important that if people display mild symptoms, they take appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of the virus and recover safely at home.

In this article, we define mild COVID-19, discuss possible symptoms, and note how it differs from other classifications.

Coronavirus resources

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

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COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease that results from an infection with the virus SARS-CoV-2, which is a type of coronavirus.

The WHO state that most people who develop symptoms of COVID-19 will likely experience mild-to-moderate respiratory illness and may recover at home without requiring special treatment.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), doctors can group adults with SARS-CoV-2 infection into categories based on the severity of illness and clinical presentation. They define mild COVID-19 illness as:

“Individuals who have any of the various signs and symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g., fever, cough, sore throat, malaise, headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of taste and smell) but who do not have shortness of breath, dyspnea, or abnormal chest imaging.”

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Studies consistently suggest that many people with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms or are asymptomatic and do not develop any symptoms at all. However, people with mild COVID-19 still need to isolate themselves and practice other safety measures to prevent spreading the virus.

There are a wide range of symptoms associated with COVID-19. People may experience a mixture of symptoms that can differ from the experience of another person.

The CDC note that anyone can develop mild to severe symptoms of COVID-19. Symptoms may appear 2–14 days after exposure to the virus and can include:

  • cough
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • muscle or body pain or aches
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • sore throat
  • loss of smell or taste
  • headaches

Doctors may classify COVID-19 cases based on the symptoms and their severity. While the specific criteria may vary between sources, there are five distinct classes of cases:

Asymptomatic No symptoms
MildMild symptoms associated with COVID-19, but no shortness of breath, dyspnea, or abnormal chest imaging
ModerateShortness of breath, evidence of lower respiratory disease, and more severe versions of symptoms associated with mild COVID-19
SevereRapid breathing, difficulty breathing, new confusion, restlessness, continual pressure or pain in the chest, trouble waking up and staying awake, bluish face or lips
CriticalRespiratory failure, septic shock, coma, dysfunction, or failure of organs other than the lungs

There are currently two kinds of test available for the SARS-CoV-2 virus: viral tests and antibody tests. A viral test involves taking either a nasal or throat swab, while an antibody text involves a blood sample for analysis.

A viral, or molecular test, can show if a person has a current infection. An antibody, or serological test, may show if a person had a past infection.

Viral tests

There are two different viral tests that people may use to diagnose COVID-19.

Nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) check samples for the genetic material of the virus. They are commonly run in laboratories and tend to be more accurate, but sometimes take longer to process than other test types. A PCR test is a type of NAAT.

Antigen tests check samples for viral proteins. They are generally not as sensitive as NAATs, particularly when someone is asymptomatic. A doctor may need to confirm the antigen test result with a NAAT.

Antibody tests

Antibody or serology tests check the blood to test for antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This determines if the immune system responded to a viral infection in the past.

Antibodies are special Y-shaped proteins that recognize antigens, or foreign molecules, present in viruses and trigger an immune response. They help fight off infections and can help protect against the virus again in the future. How long the immunoprotective effect lasts depends on the disease and individual.

Antibody tests are not advisable in cases where someone still has COVID-19 unless there are delays for viral tests. That is because antibodies usually develop 1–3 weeks after infections occur.

Getting a test

People seeking COVID-19 testing should check state or local health department websites for updates on who may require testing and how to do so safely. Plenty of tools also exist online that can help determine when to get tested.

People who think they may have COVID-19 or at risk of exposure can also talk to their healthcare provider to learn how to proceed.

Both types of viral tests are also available for use at home.

There is currently no cure for COVID-19, but some treatments are available to help manage it.

People with mild symptoms often do not require medical attention unless a person has underlying health conditions or concerns. The WHO note that around 80% of people who do develop mild COVID-19 symptoms recover at home without hospital treatment.

In most cases of mild COVID-19, the National Health Service (NHS) recommend the following at-home remedies:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking lots of fluids to maintain hydration
  • using over-the-counter pain and fever medications
  • using honey or warm drinks and trying to avoid lying on the back, all of which will help ease coughs

People with mild COVID-19 symptoms should also follow strict guidelines to ensure they do not spread the virus.

People with moderate to severe COVID-19 symptoms should seek medical attention.

Some research suggests that people with mild cases of COVID-19 may recover within 1–2 weeks of contracting the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection. The WHO suggest that most people recover from COVID-19 after 2–6 weeks.

However, research suggests that some people may experience long COVID. This is when symptoms of COVID-19 may persist for weeks to months.

People should talk to a doctor if symptoms of COVID-19 do not improve or respond to at-home care.

In most cases, it is best to call a doctor’s office or health clinic to schedule a phone appointment. Make sure to tell the person scheduling the appointment that the call is to discuss a potential (or known) case of COVID-19.

People should stay vigilant for emergency warning symptoms. If a person displays the following signs, seek immediate medical care:

  • trouble breathing
  • unexplained new confusion
  • bluish, pale, or gray skin, especially the lips or nail beds
  • being unable to wake up or stay awake
  • continual chest pain or pressure

If any of these symptoms occur, dial 9-1-1 and seek instructions on which emergency facility to go to or how to seek urgent care. Make sure to tell the operator urgent care is necessary for a potential, or known, case of COVID-19.

Most people with mild cases of COVID-19 recover with at-home care within a few weeks and do not require hospitalization. In some cases, people may experience persistent mild symptoms known as long COVID.

People with mild COVID-19 symptoms should self-isolate and follow strict precautionary guidelines to avoid exposing others to the virus.