Coronaviruses are a diverse family of viruses that can cause infection in both humans and animals.

Four 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 throughout the world. A SARS-CoV-2 infection causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19.

COVID-19 can have potentially serious complications, such as breathing issues 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
  • what you should do if you think you’ve contracted the virus

infographic detailing COVID-19 symptomsShare on Pinterest
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 CDC.

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 require 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

A sore throat and runny nose are typically the first signs of a cold — however, they could also be the beginning of a COVID infection. The only way to truly tell if you’re dealing with a cold or COVID-19 is to get tested.

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 can be six to eight times as contagious as 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.
  • COVID-19 has been shown to have a higher chance of causing death than the flu when it comes to individuals experiencing severe symptoms.

Allergies, also called hay fever, may also cause respiratory symptoms. Allergies are typically caused by exposure to allergens in your environment, such as:

Allergy symptoms typically include:

One of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19 is coughing, which isn’t typically a main symptom of allergies. Additionally, allergies aren’t traditionally 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.

Tests and treatments

On April 21, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the use of the first COVID-19 home collection kit. Using the cotton swab provided, people can collect a nasal sample and mail it to a designated laboratory for testing.

On November 17, 2020, the FDA authorized the use of a self-testing kit that does not require you to send your nasal sample to a laboratory. Test results are available within 30 minutes.

A few antiviral medications are also available. Remdesivir (Veklury) has received FDA approval, while some additional medications have been granted emergency use authorizations (EUAs).

Monoclonal antibodies (such as casirivimab and imdevimab) are often recommended for non-severe cases.

Oral antiviral pills are currently in the trial stages.

The EUAs specify that the kits and medications are authorized for use by people whom healthcare professionals have identified as having suspected COVID-19.

EUAs allow products without FDA approval to be used in circumstances when there are no FDA-approved products available to help diagnose, prevent, or treat a serious condition.

Was this helpful?

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

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

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 of complications.

How long can the virus be transmitted?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the ease/likelihood of transmitting a SARS-CoV-2 infection is determined by the stage of illness and the disease severity as outlined below:

Immediately prior to symptoms appearing. The viral infection is at the height of its infectious state, making it extremely easy to be transmitted. The time frame is typically two days prior to the onset of symptoms up to and during the early part of the illness.

Mild illness/symptoms. The virus can be transferred for about 6 to 8 days.

Severe illness/symptoms. The virus can be transmitted for an even longer period of time.

No symptoms. The virus can still be transferred, but more research is needed to find out how often it happens.

Wear a mask

The CDC recommends that all people wear masks in public places where it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others.

This will help slow the transmission of the virus in cases where there’s no presentation of symptoms or unawareness that the viral infection has been acquired.

Cloth face coverings or masks should be worn while you continue to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here.

Note: While KN95 or N95 are two optimal types of masks, regular medical masks also provide protection.

Was this helpful?

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

  • Get vaccinated and boosted. Check with a healthcare professional, your local health department, or area pharmacies about availability of and eligibility for vaccines and boosters.
  • Wash your hands. Be sure to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol if you do not have access to soap and warm water.
  • Avoid touching your face. If you touch your face or mouth when you have not 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.
  • Keep yourself informed. The CDC continually updates information as it becomes available, and the WHO publishes weekly reports.

While most people who get COVID make a full recovery a few weeks after contracting the infection, there are some post-COVID conditions that can occur in some individuals.

Long-haul COVID

People experiencing long-haul COVID — sometimes called chronic COVID — continue to deal with symptoms 4 or more weeks after an initial infection, according to the CDC. Doctors and researchers aren’t currently sure why some people experience long COVID and others don’t.

Some of the symptoms of long COVID include:

  • shortness of breath
  • persistent fatigue
  • cough
  • chest pain
  • joint or muscle pain
  • sleep problems
  • difficulty concentrating
  • post-exertional malaise, which is a worsening of symptoms after physical or mental effort
  • mood changes
  • menstrual cycle changes

Multiorgan effects or autoimmune issues

If you’re already living with a severe illness or autoimmune disease and get COVID-19, it’s possible that you may deal with symptoms that could last months after your initial diagnosis. These issues can affect any organ in your body, such as your:

  • heart
  • lungs
  • kidneys
  • skin
  • brain

If you feel as though your autoimmune disease or chronic condition is getting worse after getting COVID-19, talk with your doctor as soon as you can about any new or intense symptoms.

Effects of severe illness and hospitalization

Individuals who have to be hospitalized for COVID-19 may deal with health issues during their recovery period, such as weakness and exhaustion.

Post-intensive care syndrome (PICS), which describes the health issues that can happen when someone leaves an intensive care unit and returns home, is also a possibility if you’ve been hospitalized because of COVID-19. These health issues can include:

  • severe weakness
  • issues with judgement and thinking
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and starts experiencing one or more of these symptoms, call 911 immediately:

  • trouble breathing
  • ongoing chest pain
  • confusion
  • inability to stay awake or wake up
  • pale, blue, or greyish looking skin or lips

Additionally, if you’ve been monitoring your symptoms and they seem to be getting worse, as time goes on, you should call you doctor.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, so does research around approved treatments. As of December 2021, there are approved treatments for both mild and severe COVID-19.

Severe COVID

  • systemic corticosteroids, such as prednisone
  • IL-6 receptor blockers, like tocilizumab or sarilumab
  • monoclonal antibodies

Moderate COVID

  • monoclonal antibodies

Additionally, new treatments, including an experimental pill by Pfizer that is currently in the study phase, are on the horizon.

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, muscle aches, and difficulty breathing.

Since COVID-19 can mimic the symptoms of the common cold or flu, it’s important to talk with a doctor or get tested as soon as you start to feel ill.

If you’re diagnosed with COVID-19, plan to stay at home until you’ve recovered but always seek emergency treatment if your symptoms begin to worsen.

One of the best forms of protection against severe COVID-19 symptoms is getting vaccinated and getting a booster. As of December 2021, everyone ages 5 years or older can get a vaccine.

Other ways to help protect yourself against COVID-19 include:

  • wearing a mask indoors
  • frequent handwashing
  • not touching your face
  • staying home when sick

Read this article in Spanish.