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This Is What a Coronavirus Infection Feels Like

CDC expands list of COVID-19 symptoms and emergency warning signs


En español | In many cases, the illness starts with a fever. Sometimes a cough accompanies it — maybe shortness of breath. But for people with a mild case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, that may be the extent of unpleasant symptoms, explains Mike Wadman, an emergency physician and co-medical director of the National Quarantine Unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. That’s where 15 Americans who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship were treated or observed for the illness when they returned to the United States in late February. 

If a mild case of COVID-19 doesn’t sound much different from the cold, flu or any other respiratory illness that circulates seasonally, you’re right.

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“There is a lot of overlap,” Wadman says.

Beyond fever and cough — two of the three hallmark signs of COVID-19 — both influenza and the coronavirus share a similar list of possible symptoms, including sore throat, headache, fatigue, muscle or body aches, and a runny nose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People with COVID-19 may also experience nausea or vomiting and diarrhea. 

The majority of the time, people sick with these symptoms are able to recover at home without medical care, the CDC says. However, it’s important to call your health care provider for advice. Going into a doctor’s waiting room, urgent care center or emergency room isn’t always the best course of action, since you could infect others or pick up another infection, Wadman says.

A few warning signs require more immediate medical attention. Pain in the chest typically warrants an emergency department visit, no matter the illness in question, Wadman says. The same goes for progressive or sudden onset of shortness of breath or any sudden change in mental functioning, including inability to wake or stay awake. The CDC also lists “bluish lips or face” as a COVID-19 symptom that requires prompt care. Older adults and people with a wide variety of underlying health conditions are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 that may lead to hospitalization. 

There isn’t a single symptom that is sending people to the hospital for care; doctors are seeing patients with coronavirus infections come in for a number of reasons, including trouble breathing, weakness caused by gastrointestinal distress, and dizziness or confusion. AARP has details on what to expect if you are hospitalized with COVID-19.

Coronavirus symptoms

Mild COVID-19 cases:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

COVID-19 emergency warning signs:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What to do if you have a coronavirus infection

If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, stay home and avoid public areas, the CDC advises. Remain in a designated sickroom away from others, if possible, and keep your doctor updated with any changes in symptoms. The CDC also says people sick with COVID-19 should wear a face mask to help prevent the spread of germs to others.

Washing your hands often and wiping down frequently touched surfaces also reduces the risk of getting others sick.

COVID-19 doesn’t have a cure yet, just relief from symptoms. But clinical trials are underway to test the safety and effectiveness of potential therapies, including remdesivir, which received an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May after preliminary results showed that patients hospitalized with COVID-19 recovered faster on the antiviral drug, compared with patients taking a placebo.

How to protect yourself from coronavirus

Without a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus, experts say the best way to avoid it is to practice everyday prevention measures: Wash your hands often and keep your distance from other people — at least 6 feet of distance, Wadman says. 

“This disease is transmitted by respiratory droplets. So those droplets from a sneeze or cough, if [they land] in your mouth or nose, or if you’re inhaling those droplets, that’s the way that this disease is primarily transmitted from one person to the next,” he says. “And if you stay 6 feet away, you minimize the possibility of that happening.”

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Health officials are also urging older Americans and people with underlying health conditions who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 to stay home as much as possible, even as communities across the country begin to ease restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the virus. This is the recommendation for the first two phases of reopening, per guidelines introduced by the White House.

Don’t touch your eyes, mouth and nose, and if you do need to cough or sneeze, be sure to cover it. Also: Wear a cloth face mask when you’re in public settings where physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain to help slow the spread of the virus.

“Especially if you are older or if you do have other medical conditions, you’re at higher risk. And so really adhering to these preventive measures is a very important thing to prevent becoming ill, and if you are sick, to prevent giving that infection to someone else,” Wadman says.

Editor’s note: This story, originally published March 2, 2020, was updated to reflect new information.

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