Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content weekly based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause diseases including the common cold, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Some of these viruses can jump between animals and humans. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by a virus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which belongs to the same family of viruses and is the most recent coronavirus to infect humans.
Cases of the virus were first reported in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019.
The World Health Organization notes that, though the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, trouble breathing (or shortness of breath), and cough, some people may experience aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or diarrhea. Around one out of every six people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing.
Signs and symptoms of coronavirus
“The symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to other respiratory viruses, which makes it difficult to differentiate from the other pathogens,” says Dr. Patrick J. Kenney, DO, FACOI, who is double-board certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease. He explains that early symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, and fever. These early symptoms may appear 2–14 days after exposure, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes (Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019, 2020). There was, however, one reported case in which symptoms did not appear until 27 days after infection.
The CDC currently lists the symptoms of COVID-19 as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, a new loss of sense of taste or smell, congestion or runny nose, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
“This virus, for the most part, presents with mild symptoms in healthy patients and patients fully recover within two weeks,” Kenney explains. He adds that about 80% of the coronavirus cases are mild, like most upper respiratory infections. But the virus can range from mild to severe. “Around one out of every six people who get COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing,” the World Health Organization (WHO) reports (Q&A on coronaviruses, 2020). There are certain groups of people for whom the risk of developing severe symptoms is higher.
Emergency warning signs may include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or unable to wake up, and bluish lips or face.
Although most people with COVID-19 will only have upper respiratory symptoms, it is also possible to develop pneumonia (lung infection) when infected with the virus. If a person develops pneumonia—such as in the cases first reported in China—both lungs are usually affected.
COVID-19 symptoms vs. common coronaviruses
COVID-19 is hard to diagnose because some of the symptoms can look similar to other respiratory infections, like influenza and the common cold.
Where they differ the most is in how serious the infections are. Yes, about 81% of COVID-19 are mild, but the global fatality rate from this strain of coronavirus is worse than that of influenza. In a press briefing on March 3, 2020, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, reported a 3.4% fatality rate from COVID-19. However, the case fatality rate is likely to be dependent on a number of factors and may vary. One study found that, as of February 11, 2020, the case fatality rate in China was 2.3% while, as of March 17, 2020, the case fatality rate in Italy was 7.2% (Onder, 2020). The average mortality rate over the last ten years for influenza is about 0.1% (Knight, 2020).
What to do if you’re experiencing symptoms
“If you are experiencing symptoms, first be sure to self-quarantine to limit transmission,” Kenney advises. He explains that, like most viral infections, COVID-19 will likely require supportive care or treatment of symptoms. That includes taking acetaminophen for fever and increasing fluid intake to avoid dehydration.
In mild cases, in-person treatment is typically not necessary. That said, there are many options for contact-free health assessment to determine if in-person treatment might be required. Many places have screening protocols involving technology—such as texting with a healthcare professional—to limit exposure during diagnosis. Take advantage of them if they’re available to you. If you’re experiencing mild symptoms of a respiratory infection, stay home and self-quarantine in order to limit exposure to others. Call your healthcare provider if you have questions, your symptoms are severe, or if your symptoms suddenly get worse.