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Understanding the symptoms of COVID-19

Medically reviewed on July 14, 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.


Worried you could be experiencing symptoms of the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2—which causes the disease called COVID-19?

With the novel coronavirus continuing to infect thousands across the United States every day, understanding what symptoms are linked to it can help you take steps to keep yourself as safe as possible—like speaking with a healthcare provider and getting tested.

Here, you’ll find evidence-based information about COVID-19 symptoms—plus other key points related to transmission, risk factors, and prevention. And worth keeping in mind: you can now take a COVID-19 test at home (the Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit is FDA-authorized and is an RT-PCR test).

How is the novel coronavirus transmitted?

Coronavirus is a respiratory infection that’s transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets. When someone who’s infected coughs, sneezes, or talks, they expel virus-carrying droplets into the surrounding environment. The infection is then transmitted if these droplets come into contact with a nearby person’s mouth or nose (or are inhaled into the lungs). For this reason, the virus is most likely to spread when people are close together—within approximately 6 feet apart from each other.

The virus can also survive on various types of surfaces for a limited amount of time. Experts aren’t exactly sure how long the novel coronavirus can live on places like doorknobs, shopping carts, or kitchen counters. They estimate—if the virus acts in a way that other similar viruses do—this survival time can be anywhere between a few hours and a few days.

Additionally, some experts have made a case for the airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus—meaning that the virus can spread through the air beyond just several feet (such as from one room to another in a hospital). The scientific community has not yet reached a consensus on this point, but is actively researching this question.

Symptoms of COVID-19

Common symptoms of COVID-19 may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus and include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Importantly, it’s possible to get the virus from an infected individual who’s experiencing no symptoms (in other words, they are asymptomatic).

Here are the common symptoms that have been linked to COVID-19. Keep in mind that symptoms range from mild to severe depending on the individual and that the full list of symptoms is still being analyzed and updated in real-time. Most people, roughly 80%, recover from the disease without needing special treatment; about 17% of people will become severely ill and develop difficulty breathing.

Fever

Like the seasonal flu, a low-grade fever that gradually increases over time is a symptom to be aware of for this respiratory disease.

Coughing

Coughing is another symptom of the novel coronavirus, particularly a dry cough that persists and gets more severe over time.

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath and breathing difficulties—which refer to a feeling of not being able to take a deep breath—is a symptom seen in more severe cases.

Other symptoms

Some people infected with the novel coronavirus experience headaches, conjunctivitis, sore throat, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, muscle or body aches, nasal congestion, loss of taste or smell, a skin rash, or discoloration of fingers or toes.

Emergency symptoms

Emergency warning signs for COVID-19 include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face. If you develop these emergency warning signs, it’s important to seek medical help immediately. Remember that this list is not all-inclusive, and monitoring for other severe or concerning symptoms is crucial.

Symptoms in children

At this point, how the novel coronavirus affects children is still unclear, though these infections in children are said to be generally less severe. Symptoms among children and adults are typically similar, though the virus may be associated with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)—an inflammatory condition that affects vital body parts, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, or brain.

Flu symptoms vs. coronavirus symptoms vs. allergy symptoms

Although there can be overlap, experts say that the novel coronavirus, the flu, and allergies have different symptoms. The main symptoms of coronavirus, as noted above, are dry cough, shortness of breath, and fever. Allergy symptoms include sneezing, coughing, and wheezing. The common flu has similar symptoms to the novel coronavirus infection—like fever—but doesn’t typically cause shortness of breath.

The shortness of breath is the main key difference between the three, which is a common sign of COVID-19 that happens before pneumonia develops. Shortness of breath does not often happen with a flu or cold unless they have already progressed to pneumonia. With COVID-19, it’s shown that shortness of breath typically occurs 5 to 10 days after the first sign of a fever.

Sneezing is another symptom to take note of—sneezing and runny nose are common symptoms of a cold or allergies, and is sometimes a symptom of COVID-19.

Risk factors

There is a large variation in how people respond to infection by the novel coronavirus, but older adults and people with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and sickle cell disease are at a higher risk of developing serious illness. People who are immunocompromised or obese (or who have a BMI of 30 or higher) also face a higher risk.

The CDC has also published a list of conditions that might put someone at greater risk for severe illness. The list, which you can view here, includes high blood pressure, moderate-to-severe asthma, cystic fibrosis, liver disease, and dementia.

Close contact with someone who has this respiratory illness—as well as recent travel to an area with an ongoing spike of COVID-19 cases—are risk factors for infection.

What you can do

Currently, there is no vaccine available to prevent this infection; however, you can take a test for coronavirus. The CDC recommends taking the following steps to reduce the risk of infection:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water (for 20 seconds or more), or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of any used tissues immediately.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.
  • Avoid sharing dishes, glasses, bedding, and other household items if you're sick.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces you often touch—using household cleaners known to be effective against the novel coronavirus.
  • Stay home from work, school, and public areas if you're sick
  • If you do go out in public, or are around people you don’t live with, wear a mask to cover your face.

In addition, it’s also crucial to practice “coronavirus social distancing”—maintaining at least 6 feet distance between yourself and others—to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and keep people safe who are at risk. Social distancing refers to avoiding crowds, standing six feet away from other people, and staying home when possible. Social distancing helps slow down the spread of the coronavirus infection and gives it less opportunities to move from person to person. It helps the healthcare system in that it reduces the chances of having more patients than they can handle at any given time.

Scientists estimate that one person who is infected can infect, on average, 2.28 other people. The higher the number, the faster the coronavirus spreads. Various factors influence this number, like how many times people interact with one another, how long each interaction lasts, and how prone someone is to getting the virus. With social distancing, this number is reduced and the disease is slowed.

At-home COVID-19 test

The Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit is now available for purchase. This FDA-authorized product is designed for convenience and ease of use, with results typically available within 24-48 hours of the lab receiving your sample, and telehealth diagnosis from an independent physician. This test uses the RT-PCR testing method to identify the presence or absence of the virus' genetic material in your sample.


What is coronavirus?


References

1. How to Protect Yourself & Others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). URL.

2. Morawska L, Cao J. Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2: The world should face the reality. Environ Int. 2020;139:105730. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2020.105730

3. Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19). World Health Organization. URL.

4. Symptoms of Coronavirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). URL.

5. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Frequently Asked Questions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). URL.

6. People with Certain Medical Conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). URL.

7. Zhang S, Diao M, Yu W, Pei L, Lin Z, Chen D. Estimation of the reproductive number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the probable outbreak size on the Diamond Princess cruise ship: A data-driven analysis. Int J Infect Dis. 2020;93:201-204. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2020.02.033