Millions 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 still 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 JAMA study published in February 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. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently revealed that the virus can also cause lasting health effects in previously healthy young adults.
Here are the coronavirus symptoms you should keep on your radar, how long they may 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.
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
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 COVID-19 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. In general, “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.
Not everyone with a mild form of the virus bounces back quickly, though. In a recent survey, the CDC found that a significant number of previously healthy young patients—one in five—aren’t back to their usual health within 14 to 21 days after testing positive for the virus.
In fact, the agency discovered that 26% of 18- to 34-year-olds who had a symptomatic case of COVID-19 had lingering symptoms—most commonly a cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath—more than two weeks after being tested for the virus. That number increased as people got older: 32% of 35- to 49-year-olds reported the same, along with 47% of those who were 50 or over.
How long are you contagious for after you’re diagnosed with COVID-19?
In general, people are thought to no longer be contagious after 10 days have passed since they started experiencing symptoms, they’ve been fever-free without the use of medication for 24 hours, and their symptoms have improved, the CDC reports.
“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.”
The CDC has also softened its stance on testing, now suggesting that people can leave isolation once they meet the above criteria, whether or not they had symptoms.
What should you do if you have lingering COVID-19 symptoms?
First, don’t panic. “It’s not unexpected that you’ll have lingering symptoms after a viral illness,” says Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. After the flu, for example, people can suffer through symptoms anywhere from six week to six months or more because viruses impact multiple cells in the body.
However, some people have taken so long to recover from their symptoms that they have been dubbed “COVID-19 long-haulers.” These people have reported experiencing signs of illness—including extreme fatigue, neurological issues, and even heart problems—for months. In New York City, Mount Sinai recently opened the Center for Post-COVID Care, the first of its kind facility for these types of patients, as “the long-term complications of acute infection are still unknown,” a press release states.
If you have long-lasting symptoms but you feel like you’re slowly getting better, Dr. Casciari says you probably don’t need to see a doctor for follow-up care. “But if you reach a point where you were getting better and stop, or all of the sudden you’re getting worse, it might be an indication that you should see a doctor,” he says.
Among other things, it could be a sign of a secondary infection, like bacterial pneumonia, or a complication like a blood clot. William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says he’s “most concerned” with people who have difficulty breathing, which can be a sign of pneumonia or inflammation in your lungs.
You may even have developed an illness that’s unrelated to COVID-19, which is why you don’t want to let this kind of thing ride. Bottom line: If you’re unsure about your symptoms, don’t hesitate to call your doctor.
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