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Last updated April 2, 2020. 3 minute read

Here are the signs and symptoms of COVID-19

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Dr. Tzvi Doron, DO

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 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 notes (Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019, 2020). There was, however, one reported case in which symptoms did not appear until 27 days after infection.
“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 gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing,” the World Health Organization (WHO) notes (Q&A on coronaviruses, 2020). There are certain groups of people for whom the risk of developing severe symptoms is higher.
Although most people with COVID-19 will only have upper respiratory symptoms, it is also possible to develop pneumonia when infected with the virus. If a person develops pneumonia—such as in the cases first reported in China—both lungs are usually affected.

Additional possible symptoms include fatigue, a lost desire to eat, muscle pain, and coughing up sputum. Less common symptoms include headache, sore throat, runny nose, nausea, and diarrhea. There have also been reports of an inability to smell (anosmia) and a change in taste (dysgeusia).

COVID-19 symptoms vs. common coronaviruses

COVID-19 is hard to diagnose because the symptoms look so similar to other respiratory infections, like those you see with influenza and the common cold.
Though the differences are slight, body aches and pains are more common with influenza than COVID-19. The WHO notes that a dry rather than wet cough is more common with this new coronavirus.
Where they differ most, however, is in how serious the infections are. Yes, about 80% 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). On the other hand, the average mortality rate over the last ten years for influenza is about 0.1% (Knight, 2020). So, though the flu may kill more people this year in sheer numbers, COVID-19 is proportionally deadlier.

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. 
Even though most cases of coronavirus are mild, you should still seek medical treatment. 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 (e.g. high fever, difficulty breathing), or if your symptoms suddenly get worse.