Coronaviruses are a diverse family of viruses that can infect both humans and animals. Several types of coronaviruses cause mild upper respiratory illness in humans. Others, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, can cause more severe respiratory illness.

In late 2019, a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 emerged in China. This virus has since spread to many other countries throughout the world. An infection with SARS-CoV-2 causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19.

COVID-19 can have potentially serious complications, such as trouble breathing and pneumonia. Because of this, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and how they differ from other conditions.

Continue reading to learn more about the symptoms of COVID-19, how they differ from other respiratory conditions, and what you should do if you think you’ve become ill.

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Design by Ruth Basagoitia

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the median incubation period for SARS-CoV-2 is 4 to 5 days. However, it can range anywhere from 2 to 14 days.

Not everyone with a SARS-CoV-2 infection will feel unwell. It’s possible to have the virus and not develop symptoms. When symptoms are present, they’re typically mild and develop slowly. The most common symptoms are:

Some people with COVID-19 may sometimes experience additional symptoms, such as:

Some observations suggest that respiratory symptoms may worsen in the second week of illness. This appears to occur after around 8 days.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 1 in 5 people with COVID-19 become seriously ill. These individuals can develop severe pneumonia or respiratory failure and may require oxygen or mechanical ventilation.

Coronaviruses are actually one of the many types of viruses that can cause the common cold. In fact, it’s estimated that four types of human coronavirus account for 10 to 30 percent of upper respiratory infections in adults.

Some symptoms of the common cold are:

  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • body aches and pains
  • headache

How can you tell if you have a cold or COVID-19? Consider your symptoms. A cold is typically preceded by a sore throat and runny nose, which are less common symptoms of COVID-19.

Additionally, fever isn’t as common in a cold.

You may have heard COVID-19 being compared to the flu, a common seasonal respiratory illness. How can you tell the difference between the symptoms of these two infections?

First off, the symptoms of the flu often come on suddenly, while COVID-19 symptoms appear to develop more gradually. Common symptoms of the flu include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • cough
  • fatigue
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • body aches and pains
  • vomiting or diarrhea

As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap in symptoms between COVID-19 and the flu. However, it’s important to note that many common symptoms of the flu are observed less often in cases of COVID-19.

The WHO also notes the following differences between the two:

  • The flu has a shorter incubation period than that of COVID-19.
  • Transmitting the virus prior to developing symptoms drives many influenza infections but doesn’t appear to play as much of a role for COVID-19.
  • The percentage of people who develop serious symptoms or complications appears higher for COVID-19 than for the flu.
  • COVID-19 appears to affect children with less frequency than the flu does.
  • There’s currently no vaccine or antivirals available for COVID-19. However, interventions are available for the flu.

Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, is another condition that may cause respiratory symptoms. It occurs due to exposure to allergens in your environment, such as pollen, mold, dust, or pet dander.

The symptoms of hay fever include:

One of the hallmark symptoms of hay fever is itching, which isn’t observed in COVID-19. Additionally, hay fever isn’t associated with symptoms like fever or shortness of breath.

If you think that you have symptoms of COVID-19, here’s what to do:

  • Monitor your symptoms. Not everyone with COVID-19 requires hospitalization. However, keeping track of your symptoms is important since they may worsen in the second week of illness.
  • Contact your doctor. Even if your symptoms are mild, it’s still a good idea to call your doctor to let them know about your symptoms and any potential exposure risks.
  • Get tested. Your doctor can work with local health authorities and the CDC to evaluate your symptoms and risk of exposure to determine if you need to be tested for COVID-19.
  • Stay isolated. Plan to isolate yourself at home until your infection has cleared up. Try to stay separated from other people in your home, using a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible.
  • Seek care. If your symptoms worsen, seek prompt medical care. Be sure to call ahead before you arrive at a clinic or hospital. Wear a face mask, if available.

You’re at an increased risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 if you’ve been:

  • living or traveling in an area where COVID-19 illness is widespread or community transmission is occurring
  • in close contact with someone who has a confirmed infection

Doctors are still trying to understand who is at an increased risk for severe COVID-19. Currently, the risk factors for severe disease appear to be:

The CDC recommends that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people without symptoms or people who don’t know they have contracted the virus. Cloth face masks should be worn while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here. Note: It’s critical to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

Follow the tips below to help protect yourself and others from a SARS-CoV-2 infection:

  • Wash your hands. Be sure to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water. If this isn’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your face. Touching your face or mouth if you haven’t washed your hands can transfer the virus to these areas and potentially make you sick.
  • Maintain distance. Avoid close contact with people who are ill. If you’re around someone who is coughing or sneezing, try to stay at least 6 feet away.
  • Don’t share personal items. Sharing items such as eating utensils and drinking glasses can potentially spread the virus.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Try to cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or into a tissue. Be sure to promptly dispose of any used tissues.
  • Stay home if you’re sick. If you’re already ill, plan to stay at home until you recover.
  • Clean surfaces. Use household cleaning sprays or wipes to clean high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, keyboards, and countertops.
  • Keep yourself informed. The CDC continuously updates information as it becomes available, and the WHO publishes daily situation reports.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that’s caused by an infection with the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The main symptoms of COVID-19 are cough, fatigue, fever, and shortness of breath.

Since COVID-19 can become serious, it’s important to recognize how its symptoms differ from other conditions. You can do this by carefully considering your symptoms, their development, and your risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

If you think that you have COVID-19, call your doctor. They can help determine if you need to be tested. Plan to stay at home until you’ve recovered, but always seek emergency treatment if your symptoms begin to worsen.

On April 21, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the first COVID-19 home testing kit. Using the cotton swab provided, people will be able to collect a nasal sample and mail it to a designated laboratory for testing.

The emergency use authorization specifies that the test kit is authorized for use by people who healthcare professionals have identified as having suspected COVID-19.

There are currently no vaccines or antivirals available for COVID-19. However, simple measures can help protect you and others. These include things like frequent handwashing, not touching your face, and staying home when sick.

Read this article in Spanish.