The symptoms section of this article was updated on May 19, 2020.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes COVID-19. This disease primarily causes symptoms that affect the lungs and airways.
The symptoms of COVID-19 may resemble those of the common cold or flu. At the moment, people who experience such symptoms should act as if they have COVID-19.
They will need to take specific steps to monitor their health and prevent spreading SARS-CoV-2 to others.
This article discusses what a person should do if they develop symptoms of COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) list the most common COVID-19 symptoms as:
The disease may also cause other symptoms, including:
The CDC report that a person may also experience chills, repeated shaking with chills, and a new loss of taste or smell.
A study from April 2020 also found that many people who have COVID-19 experience a temporary loss of taste and smell.
Symptom onset and severity
The symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear within 2–14 days of contracting SARS-CoV-2. However, some people remain asymptomatic. This means that they have contracted the virus but do not develop any symptoms.
People who do develop symptoms may find that they become more severe as the disease progresses.
One study investigated the severity of COVID-19 symptoms among 55,924 confirmed cases in China. The research indicates that 80% of people developed mild-to-moderate symptoms, while 13.8% developed severe symptoms. A further 6.1% of people developed very severe symptoms requiring intensive care.
If a person develops any symptoms of COVID-19, they should follow the steps below to stay safe and help protect others from the virus.
Once a person begins to suspect that they may have COVID-19, they should:
- Self-isolate: Self-isolating means staying at home and staying away from other family members to avoid spreading the virus. Ideally, people who have symptoms of COVID-19 should remain in one room and use a separate bathroom to other members of the household.
- Seek medical help if needed: A person should contact a doctor by phone to report their symptoms and seek further advice. They should not show up at a doctor’s office without prior approval from the facility. People should call the emergency services if their symptoms are severe or include breathing difficulties.
At present, there is no specific treatment for COVID-19. However, the following at-home self-care measures can help alleviate symptoms and prevent complications:
- drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated
- eating a healthful diet to help the body fight the infection
- getting plenty of rest to aid recovery
- taking medications to ease a cough
- using acetaminophen to lower a fever and alleviate aches and pains
It is important to monitor any symptoms and to take action if they begin to get worse.
If a person begins to develop breathing difficulties, they should call a doctor or hospital for guidance. A person should call the emergency services if their breathing difficulties are severe or get worse.
Protect others from contracting SARS-CoV-2
SARS-CoV-2 spreads through respiratory droplets when a person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. It can also spread when someone touches a surface on which these respiratory droplets have landed and then touches their face.
Some evidence indicates that it may also be possible for SARS-CoV-2 to spread through feces, though the research on this is limited.
People who develop symptoms of COVID-19 should take the following steps to protect others from contracting SARS-CoV-2:
- Avoid going out in public, and isolate from other people inside the home. This means staying in a separate room and using a separate bathroom, if possible.
- Clean all frequently used surfaces in the isolation room every day using a disinfectant. Such surfaces may include tabletops, counters, doorknobs, and bathroom fixtures.
- Ensure that other people who live in the home disinfect these surfaces in other areas of the home.
- Cover all coughs and sneezes with a tissue, and dispose of the tissue in a lined trash can. Double-bag any trash bags before disposing of them.
- Regularly wash the hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, containing at least 60% alcohol, when soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching the eyes, mouth, and nose, as this increases the risk of transferring the virus to other people or surfaces.
- Avoid sharing personal items, including crockery, utensils, towels, and bedding, with others.
- Wash all eating utensils thoroughly after use with soap and water, or put them in the dishwasher.
- Wear a face mask if going to the hospital or traveling by ambulance. If face masks are unavailable, use a scarf or bandana instead.
Practice proper hand hygiene
Practicing proper hand hygiene is a very effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
This is because it reduces a person’s risk of contracting the infection if they touch their face and reduces the likelihood of transferring the virus to other people or surfaces that people may touch.
To wash the hands properly, use water and soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Some key times to wash the hands include:
- when they are visibly dirty
- before and after food preparation
- before eating
- after using the bathroom
- after changing a diaper or helping a child who has used the potty or toilet
- after touching an animal or their food or waste
- after handling garbage
- before touching the face
- before inserting or removing contact lenses
- after coughing, sneezing, or blowing the nose
- before and after treating wounds
- before and after taking care of someone who is sick
When soap and water are unavailable, a person should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Below are some tips on how to care for someone who is sick with COVID-19:
- Monitor the person’s symptoms closely, and ask them to provide regular updates on how they are feeling.
- Treat the symptoms. Where appropriate, provide acetaminophen to reduce a fever, and give cough medicine to alleviate a cough.
- Call a doctor if the person’s symptoms worsen. If breathing difficulties develop, call the emergency services.
People who are caring for someone at home should also take steps to prevent the spread of the virus to themselves and others. To do so, they should:
- Ensure that the person they are caring for self-isolates in a separate room of the home and uses a separate bathroom, if possible.
- Ensure that they and the person they are caring for wear a face mask. If face masks are unavailable, a person can wear a bandana or wrap a scarf around their face.
- Wear disposable gloves when handling the person’s garbage or soiled laundry. Immediately dispose of the gloves after use.
- Wash the hands often with soap and water, especially after interacting with the person who is sick or touching anything they have touched.
- Disinfect frequently used surfaces throughout the home every day. Use separate cleaning cloths, sponges, and mops for isolation rooms to avoid spreading the virus to other areas of the home.
The symptoms of COVID-19 can get worse. This may happen gradually or rapidly.
Examples of worsening symptoms include a sudden spike in body temperature and a cough that gets so bad it causes breathing difficulties.
People whose symptoms get worse should call their doctor for advice. If the symptoms are severe, people should call the emergency services and let the operator know that they have COVID-19 symptoms.
Emergency symptoms include but are not limited to:
- difficulty breathing
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- a bluish tinge to the lips or face
- sudden confusion or an inability to wake
Experts are not currently sure if people can develop COVID-19 twice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that scientists do not fully understand the immune response and duration of immunity to SARS-CoV-2 yet.
People who get a separate coronavirus called MERS-CoV are unlikely to get the infection again soon after they recover. However, experts do not know if the same is true for people who contract SARS-CoV-2.
The WHO report that the average recovery time for mild cases of COVID-19 is approximately 2 weeks.
People with severe or critical disease typically take between 3 and 6 weeks to recover.
People who develop COVID-19 symptoms should call their doctor immediately for guidance. They should self-isolate and take other precautions to avoid spreading SARS-CoV-2 to others.
Trying at-home self-care measures can help alleviate the symptoms of COVID-19. However, if the symptoms become severe, people should seek emergency medical attention.