What are the symptoms of the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

An illustration of the coronavirus provided by the CDC

Worried you may have the coronavirus disease 2019, also known as COVID-19? Here are answers to common questions about testing, when and how to see a doctor and what to do if you are told to self-isolate. It's important to stay informed about what public health officials know about the new coronavirus (COVID-19).

It typically causes flu-like symptoms. Some patients — particularly the elderly and others with other chronic health conditions — develop a severe form of pneumonia.

Patients develop symptoms like:

  • fever
  • muscle and body aches
  • cough
  • sore throat

Some people won’t get as sick, but it’s still important not to be out and about, so as not to spread the disease.  A minority of patients will get worse instead of better. This usually happens after 5-7 days of illness and these patients will have more shortness of breath and worsening cough.

Since testing depends on having a certain amount of the coronavirus present in your nose (or nasopharynx), it can take several days from the time you’re exposed to when you will be able to be tested.

It is also highly unlikely you will be able to be tested if you do not have symptoms. That’s because tests are in short supply and need to be reserved for patients who are sick. It can take up to two weeks from the time someone is exposed for them to develop symptoms.

If you are experiencing mild-to-medium symptoms of COVID-19 — which include fever, muscle and body aches, cough and sore throat — we encourage you to stay at home, self-isolate and rest.

Monitor your temperature and drink plenty of fluids. Continue to wash your hands frequently, disinfect frequently touched surfaces in your home and stay away from other people as much as possible. If your condition worsens after 5 days, reach out to your doctor — ideally through a remote way, such as calling or messaging through a MyChart account — for advice.

You’ll need to stay home for 72 hours after you recover.

Contact a doctor if you have more severe symptoms, are over 60, or have additional health issues. People with hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes, who have weak immune systems, who smoke, with underlying lung disease, or who take medicines to suppress their immune systems because they have cancer or an autoimmune condition are at higher risk for COVID-19.

Contact a doctor if you’re experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Wheezing
  • Constant or severe abdominal pain
  • Confusion
  • Unable to keep food and liquids down

If any of these symptoms are severe, you should go to an emergency room. If you are over 60 and have other chronic medical problems, consider contacting an emergency room for less-severe symptoms.

The hospital and emergency room should be used only by people who are concerned about life-threatening symptoms, such as trouble breathing and chest pain. If you’re just a little bit sick, the best thing you can do is self-isolate and try to keep the virus from spreading to others.

If you are over 60 and have other chronic medical problems in addition to less-severe symptoms, you should consider contacting your doctor to see if they recommend you come in to the emergency room.

Across the country, public health officials are concerned that so-called “worried well” (those with less severe cases or who aren’t sick at all) will clog hospitals and emergency rooms. That takes resources away from sick patients and risks spreading germs to others who haven’t yet been exposed.

If you need to see a doctor or go to an emergency room, contact your doctor or local hospital immediately and tell them you are coming. They will make arrangements to care for you while also protecting those around you from possible spread of coronavirus, such as placing a mask on when you enter the building.

At the moment, testing of patients for COVID-19 is being recommended only if you have respiratory symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, trouble breathing) AND epidemiological risk exists, which include travel to an area or region with widespread COVID-19 activity or contact with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19. Testing typically is being done only for people who’ve had negative tests for other common respiratory conditions like influenza.

People without symptoms will generally not be tested. That’s because excess testing of low-risk individuals will overwhelm limited testing supplies and restrict availability for those at a higher risk for the disease. Regardless of a positive COVID-19 test, anyone with respiratory symptoms should avoid contact with others until they are healthy.

If you’re asked to self-isolate at home, it means you cannot and should not leave your home unless you’re going to seek medical care. If you live with other people, try to stay within a specific room and have your own bathroom, if possible. Don’t share household appliances and utensils. Make sure to limit access to pets and wear a facemask when you’re around other people or leaving your home to seek medical attention. Don’t let others visit unless they’re medical professionals or those who absolutely need to be in your home. If you need to leave to get medical care, make sure you call ahead. Carefully monitor your symptoms. Wash your hands and wipe down other surfaces frequently. Hand hygiene and surface-cleaning can make all the difference.

You’ll need to stay home for 72 hours after you recover.

If you’re given a public-health quarantine, authorities from the local health department also should be giving you guidance on how best to do this.

Social distancing is key to avoiding contact with COVID-19 and stopping the spread of this disease.

Healthy people should:

  • Avoid crowds of six or more.
  • Keep a distance of at least 6 feet when gatherings of small groups are required.
  • Avoid casual physical contact, such as handshaking.
  • Perform hand hygiene frequently, and avoid touching your face.

Those with fever or respiratory symptoms should:

  • Stay at home and not go to work or school.
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with your elbow or a disposable tissue.
  • Wear a mask if you must be in public to seek medical care.
  • Avoid hospitals or healthcare clinics if your symptoms are mild and you can recover at home.
Allison Bartlett, MD

Allison Bartlett, MD, MS

Allison Bartlett, MD, MS, specializes in the medical management of acute and chronic infectious diseases. She also is working to improve the safety and efficacy of antibiotic use in children.

Learn more about Dr. Bartlett.

COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly across the globe, so some information may be outdated from our publish date. For our latest updates, read our most recent coronavirus coverage.

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