Thousands of cases of novel coronavirus have been reported in the U.S, and the rapid spread is prompting a lot of questions about what, exactly, happens when a person contracts COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, and how long symptoms will 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 a virus you want to contract and its effects can be fatal—especially in older adults and the immunocompromised. Here are the 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.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only lists out three symptoms for COVID-19: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But a report of a joint World Health Organization-China mission lists the following as possible symptoms:
- Dry cough
- Sputum production
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- Muscle pain
If you develop those symptoms, the CDC recommends staying home and doing your best to avoid coming into contact with others. If your symptoms worsen, call your doctor before heading to a hospital, where you could potentially spread the virus.
How long do symptoms of novel coronavirus last?
Symptoms of this novel 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, per CNN.)
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 will not have a test, the CDC says you can leave home after these three things happen:
If you will have a test, you can leave home after the following:
If you’re unsure, though, don’t hesitate to call your doctor to ensure you’re taking proper precautions.
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