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Coronaviruses are a diverse family of viruses that can cause an infection in 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 illnesses.

In late 2019, a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 emerged in China. This virus has since spread to many other countries throughout the world. A SARS-CoV-2 infection 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 contracted the virus.

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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:

Impact of respiratory symptoms

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. They may require oxygen or mechanical ventilation.

Emergency symptoms

Symptoms that should prompt an immediate visit to the emergency room (ER) include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • persistent chest pain or pressure in the chest
  • confusion
  • difficulty waking up or staying awake
  • cyanosis, which causes blue lips or a blue face

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 coronaviruses 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 sore throat and runny nose are typically the first signs of a cold. These symptoms are less common with COVID-19.

Additionally, fever isn’t as common with 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.

Differences between the flu and COVID-19

Some notable differences between the flu and COVID-19 are:

  • The flu has a shorter incubation period than that of COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 is more contagious and is transmitted more quickly than the flu.
  • The percentage of adults 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. Discover the symptoms of flu in kids.

Hay fever, also called allergic rhinitis, is another condition that may cause respiratory symptoms. It’s the result of exposure to allergens in your environment, such as:

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 such as 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 for exposure to determine whether you need to be tested for COVID-19.
  • Stay isolated. Plan to isolate yourself at home until your infection has cleared. Try to stay separated from other people in your home. Use 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 for contracting SARS-CoV-2 if you’ve been:

The CDC states that adults ages 65 years and older are most at risk for severe illness, as are people with the following chronic health conditions:

People who are pregnant also have an increased risk for complications.

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 they aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your face. If you touch your face or mouth when you haven’t washed your hands, you can transfer the virus to these areas and potentially make yourself sick.
  • Maintain distance. Avoid close contact with people who are ill. If you’re around someone who’s coughing or sneezing, try to stay at least 6 feet away.
  • Don’t share personal items. Sharing items like eating utensils and drinking glasses can potentially transmit 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.
  • Get vaccinated. Get a vaccine when one becomes available for you in your area.
  • Keep yourself informed. The CDC continually updates information as it becomes available, and the WHO publishes weekly reports.

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, fatigue, 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 for exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

If you think that you have COVID-19, call your doctor. They can help determine whether 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.

Until a vaccine is widely available, simple measures can help protect you and others.

These include things such as:

  • frequent handwashing
  • not touching your face
  • staying home when sick

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