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What to expect: how long does coronavirus last?

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on September 28, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


While recovery times for the common cold and flu are generally easy to predict, the known duration of COVID-19 can vary from patient to patient. So how long do coronavirus symptoms last? If you think you may have coronavirus, or you’ve received a positive result on a coronavirus test kit, here we’ll cover what you can expect when it comes to the incubation period, symptoms, and other aspects of coronavirus duration.

Incubation period for the novel coronavirus

The incubation period refers to the amount of time between getting infected and first experiencing symptoms. Here’s what you need to know about coronavirus in the incubation period. The exact amount of time from initial exposure to onset of symptoms will vary based on the patient, but most experts believe it to be anywhere from 3 to 14 days, with most people showing symptoms within four to five days after initial exposure.

Although it may take several days for the virus to build up within your system enough to show symptoms, you can still be contagious during the incubation period. An infected person has been found to be contagious 48 to 72 hours before actually displaying any obvious symptoms. New research suggests that the 48 hours prior to obvious symptoms is when people are the most likely to spread the virus, which makes taking proper precautions (social distancing, face masks, getting tested, and washing your hands) vital for reducing potential transmission.

How long are you contagious?

Most people diagnosed with COVID-19 are most contagious in the beginning stages of the infection, especially if they are coughing and sneezing. However, people who show no symptoms (either because they are asymptomatic or because they are still in the incubation period) can also spread the virus to others if they are too close. Respiratory droplets tend to be the primary means of exposure. While coughing and sneezing produce droplets that may spread farther, you can still create virus-carrying droplets by breathing and talking. This is why the importance of social distancing in the workplace or public areas, using hand sanitizer or washing your hands frequently, and wearing a face mask are much-talked-about safety measures. If you don’t have a proper mask, check out our blog to learn what type of mask for coronavirus you can use.

Most patients diagnosed with COVID-19 stop being contagious within 10 days after their symptoms have completely resolved. Those who test positive but do not exhibit symptoms over the next 10 days are generally considered not contagious, but there have been exceptions.

The duration for mild cases of COVID-190

Mild cases of COVID-19 are quite common. Data from the World Health Organization shows that about 80 percent of laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus were mild to moderate in the severity of symptoms. This is largely dependent on one’s immune system, age, or any underlying medical conditions. More research is necessary to fully understand the symptoms of the novel coronavirus. There is a wide range of symptoms that can affect various parts and organs within the body.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of symptoms, but for mild cases the most common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Chills or fever
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and/or pressure on the chest
  • Congestion, runny nose, sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • General fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • A sudden loss of smell or taste
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

Most people with mild coronavirus symptoms recover in one to two weeks. However, some people may actually take longer to fully recover, even with just mild cases. A CDC survey found that about one-third of adults with mild symptoms still had not returned to normal health after three weeks of testing positive for COVID-19. About one in five young adults (age 18 to 34) who had COVID-19 but did not require hospitalization did not return to normal health after three weeks.

The duration of severe coronavirus infections

For about one in five patients with coronavirus, the disease will progress and become worse. Symptoms in patients can get worse within days or even within hours. Severe symptoms can include a severe cough and shortness of breath combined with a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The virus can potentially enter the lungs and kill cells. To fight the virus, the immune system may start the process of inflammation, which can then result in severe forms of pneumonia.

In about 14% of cases of COVID-19, symptoms become so severe that patients require supplemental oxygen. About six percent of cases become critical, which can lead to septic shock that can contribute to heart or respiratory failure, stroke, other organ failure, or death.

People with severe cases of coronavirus may need to self-isolate for 20 days after symptoms first appeared. However, it’s not uncommon for recovery to take six or more weeks for severe cases.

Potential long-term health concerns

Conversations surrounding COVID-19 tend to center around a common binary: people either have mild cases and get better quickly, or they have severe symptoms and have to be taken to intensive care units. Increasingly, however, studies and research suggest that a subset of patients with COVID-19 experience ongoing symptoms and complications, even in mild cases among young adults without any underlying medical conditions. These symptoms continue to last several months after initial exposure or symptom onset. In one Italian study, 87 percent of a cohort of people hospitalized for the novel coronavirus was still struggling with recovery two months after their confirmed case.

The problem here, as with much of COVID-19, is a lack of information. We are still just several months into this pandemic, meaning we still aren’t sure how the novel coronavirus could affect people in the long-term. What studies do show is that the coronavirus uses a spike protein to attach to ACE2 receptors on cells. These receptors are found on a wide range of tissues, including the heart, kidneys, and nervous system. This may cause lingering issues, beyond just the coughing, sore throat, and breathing issues that are well-documented with the virus.

For example, those with COVID-19 may experience ongoing brain fog as a result of damage to the brain cells by the virus. Joint pain and high blood pressure are also common lingering issues. These ongoing issues can be physically debilitating and mentally taxing.

When is it safe to discontinue isolation?

Once you have been diagnosed with coronavirus, you will likely have to self-isolate for some period of time, at least 14 days. While the CDC no longer recommends a negative COVID-19 test before returning to the public, here are their guidelines and criteria for discontinuing isolation for people who have had symptoms and are not in healthcare settings:

  • It has been over 10 days since your symptoms first started.
  • You have been without a fever for over 24 hours without needing to use a fever-reducing medication.
  • Any other symptoms have improved.

If you have tested positive for COVID-19 but did not exhibit any symptoms, you can typically discontinue your isolation 10 days after first receiving your positive test results—but be sure to consult with your healthcare provider first.

Also, even after you return to the public, make sure you still take the proper precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. While you may not be contagious, more research is necessary to determine the potential for reinfection. Even if you have antibodies in your system, they may not protect you from another coronavirus infection. Maintain social distancing, wear a mask, and regularly wash your hands.

Testing still remains one of the best tools in the ongoing pandemic. Aside from providing healthcare providers with valuable information, testing is a good way to understand what might be behind symptoms you’re experiencing. Take care of your health and determine potential next steps to protect yourself and others. If you do not have a testing site near you or want to test yourself in the comfort of your own home, consider taking the Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit.


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References

1. Coronavirus FAQ - Basics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 28, 2020.

2. Symptom Duration and Risk Factors for Delayed Return to Usual Health Among Outpatients with COVID-19 in a Multistate Health Care Systems Network — United States, March–June 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 28, 2020.

3. Clinical Questions about COVID-19: Questions and Answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 28, 2020.

4. Carfì A, Bernabei R, Landi F, for the Gemelli Against COVID-19 Post-Acute Care Study Group. Persistent Symptoms in Patients After Acute COVID-19. JAMA. 2020;324(6):603–605. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12603

5. Kai, H., Kai, M. Interactions of coronaviruses with ACE2, angiotensin II, and RAS inhibitors—lessons from available evidence and insights into COVID-19. Hypertens Res 43, 648–654 (2020). doi.org/10.1038/s41440-020-0455-8

6. Discontinuation of Isolation for Persons with COVID-19 Not in Healthcare Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 28, 2020.