Hundreds of thousands of cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, have been confirmed in the U.S—and the rapid spread is prompting a lot of questions about what happens when a person gets ill and how long the symptoms last.
While coronavirus and its impact on everyday life is understandably overwhelming, it’s important to point out that most cases of COVID-19 have not been life-threatening. One recent JAMA study analyzed data from 44,415 coronavirus patients in China and found that 81% of the cases were classified as mild, 14% were severe, and only 5% were critical.
Still, this is not an illness you want to contract and its effects can be fatal—especially in older adults and the immunocompromised. Here are the coronavirus symptoms you should keep on your radar, how long they usually last, and what you can do to keep yourself and those around you safe.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
It’s important to note that COVID-19 is caused by a new virus and there is a lot medical professionals are still learning about it, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
That’s why, until recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only listed out three symptoms for COVID-19: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But the agency has added six additional symptoms to its official list:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Repeated shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
A report of a joint World Health Organization-China mission also lists sputum production (a.k.a. excess mucus that you may cough up), fatigue, and diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting as possible signs of COVID-19. And, sometimes, a person may not develop symptoms at all.
If you do wind up with symptoms, however, the CDC recommends staying home and doing your best to avoid coming into contact with others. If your symptoms worsen, call your doctor to discuss how you’re feeling before heading to a hospital, where you could potentially spread the virus if you have it (or pick it up if you actually don’t).
How long do symptoms of the novel coronavirus last?
Symptoms of this coronavirus may show up anywhere between two to 14 days after you’ve been exposed, the CDC says. From there, the duration of your illness depends on a few factors.
If you have a more mild case which, again, most people do, the CDC says that you’ll likely have symptoms for a few days and feel better in a week or so. “Many people have symptoms for two weeks—some longer and others a shorter duration,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., infectious disease physician and associate professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University.
But if you happen to have a severe case of COVID-19 and develop a complication like pneumonia, your symptoms will likely last longer. “More severely ill patients are being seen to need care and continue to have symptoms such as shortness of breath for six weeks or more,” says David Cennimo, M.D., an infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
How long are you contagious for after you’re diagnosed with COVID-19?
Doctors don’t really know at this point, Dr. Watkins says. Some people have been found to be “shedding the virus up to four weeks,”—meaning they are giving off fragments of the virus—“but it is unclear if that means they are still contagious,” he says.
“Initially, patients were tested to see if the virus could no longer be detected in their nasal secretions. They needed two negative tests 24 hours apart to be ‘cleared,’” Dr. Cennimo says. But, now, he says, “no one wants to use that many tests on one person in this shortage.” (In addition to a lack of test kits, medical workers are also reporting a shortage of necessary materials, like swabs and pipettes.)
It seems like a patient’s viral load (how much virus they contain) drops as their symptoms get better, but it’s not 100% guaranteed, Dr. Cennimo says. That’s especially true because some data has found that children with very minimal symptoms also had high viral loads, he says.
There’s no set length of time for how long you’ll be contagious, but the CDC has guidelines that depend on whether you have access to a test to see if you still have COVID-19.
If you have symptoms, but will not have a test, the CDC says you can leave home after these three things happen:
- You don’t have a fever for at least 72 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.
- Your symptoms have improved.
- At least seven days have passed since you first had symptoms.
If you have symptoms, and will have a test, you can leave home after the following:
- You no longer have a fever without the use of fever-reducing medication.
- Your symptoms have improved.
- You received two negative tests in a row, 24 hours apart.
If you didn’t have symptoms, but tested positive and are self-isolating, you can leave home after the following:
- At least seven days have passed since the date of your first positive test.
- You continue to have no symptoms since the test.
Asymptomatic people, in particular, should continue to limit their contact with others and wear a face mask, even at home, for three more days after the initial week has passed.
Bottom line: If you’re unsure about your symptoms, don’t hesitate to call your doctor to ensure you’re taking proper precautions.