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This Is What a Coronavirus Infection Feels Like

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

spinner image A man coughing/sneezing into his elbow/arm in order to stop the spread of disease.
Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez / Getty Images

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.


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What to do if you have a coronavirus infection

If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, stay home and avoid public areas for 10 days after the onset of your symptoms, the CDC advises. If you are asymptomatic, meaning you never experience symptoms of the illness, quarantine yourself for 10 days after your coronavirus test. Remain in a designated sickroom away from others, if possible, and keep your doctor updated with any changes in symptoms. 

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

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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

It’s important to note that your symptoms may linger longer than the infection. A July report from the CDC, for example, found that 35 percent of symptomatic adults who tested positive for COVID-19 but who were not hospitalized for the illness had not returned to their usual state of health 14 to 21 days after testing. Even young, healthy adults struggle to recover quickly from an infection. Nearly 1 in 5 surveyed adults ages 18 to 34 with no chronic medical conditions had not returned to their usual state of health 14 to 21 days after testing positive. Many coronavirus patients have seen complications persist even longer

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. Vaccine trials are also moving forward. 

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.”

Also: Wear a face mask, even if you feel healthy. The latest research shows cloth face coverings can block respiratory droplets from spreading to other people, leaving the virus with nowhere to go. If worn community wide, face masks reduce everyone’s risk for infection. 

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 limit interactions with other people as much as possible and to consider avoiding activities where taking protective measures, such as physical distancing, may be difficult to maintain. 

“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.

Coronavirus Symptoms Explained

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

Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.

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