Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically 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), the most recent coronavirus to infect humans.
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, loss of smell and taste, 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 (CDC 2021). 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 loss of the sense of taste or smell, congestion or runny nose, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Most people who are infected with the coronavirus will experience mild symptoms and fully recover without special treatment. But COVID-19 can range from mild to severe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one out of every six people who get COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops breathing problems (WHO, 2020). Certain groups of people, such as people over the age of 65 or people with underlying medical conditions, are at higher risk for developing severe symptoms.
Emergency warning signs may include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or the inability 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, both lungs are usually affected.
COVID-19 symptoms vs. common coronaviruses
COVID-19 can be 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. While about 80% of COVID-19 are mild, the global fatality rate from this strain of coronavirus is worse than that of influenza. The case fatality rate is likely to be dependent on a number of factors and may vary. In early 2020, one study found that the case fatality rate in China was 2.3% and 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
In mild COVID-19 cases, in-person treatment is typically not necessary. There are many options for contact-free health assessments to determine if treatment is required. Many facilities have screening protocols involving technology—such as texting with a healthcare professional—to limit exposure during diagnosis. 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.
- CDC. Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). (2021, February 22). Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/symptoms.html
Knight, V. (2020, March 2). In An Exchange About Coronavirus, Homeland Security Chief Gets Flu Mortality Rate Wrong. Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/fact-check-coronavirus-homeland-security-chief-flu-mortality-rate/
- Onder, G., Rezza, G., & Brusaferro, S. (2020). Case-Fatality Rate and Characteristics of Patients Dying in Relation to COVID-19 in Italy. JAMA. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.4683, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2763667
- WHO: Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19). (2020, February 23). Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses