Here’s what researchers know about the virus’ symptoms so far.
Between the new coronavirus and the myriad other seasonal illnesses still going around, most of us will have some symptoms of something while practicing social distancing. Though research on coronavirus symptoms is changing by the day, there are certain, specific factors that raise the likelihood that symptoms might be related to COVID-19. And because the symptoms of coronavirus can be so similar to a cold or flu, knowing what coronavirus actually looks and feels like can help you avoid panicking with every small sniffle or touch of a cough.
Even with symptoms, you might not be able to know for sure if you have coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) suggests people seek testing for diagnosis or "surveillance," now that testing is much more widely available than it was in the first stages of the pandemic.
You can call your doctor or use a telehealth service to figure out what to do about possible coronavirus symptoms, but know that most patients are able to ride the illness out at home.
Official Symptoms Of COVID-19
In late April, the CDC updated its coronavirus guide to include six new symptoms: chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. ABC News reported that previously, only fever, cough, and shortness of breath were listed. Sometime later, three new symptoms were added to the official coronavirus symptom guide: runny nose, nausea, or diarrhea.
Per World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines updated April 17, the most common symptoms of coronavirus include fever, tiredness, and a dry cough that doesn’t involve mucus or blood, though it acknowledged even at that time that congestion and diarrhea were possible, less common symptoms.
"Current symptoms reported for patients with COVID-19 include mild to severe respiratory illness, fever, cough, and shortness of breath," Dr. Andres Romero, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Bustle. The WHO notes around one in five people will develop difficulty breathing, which is considered a serious symptom.
Many patients who first lost their sense of smell and taste reported not having any other symptoms, The New York Times reported. Research on this symptom specifically is still limited, but there is "good evidence from South Korea, China and Italy that significant numbers of patients with proven COVID-19 infection have developed anosmia/hyposmia,” the American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO) wrote on its website on March 23. The AAO proposed that these symptoms should be added to the list of screening tools and criteria for isolation.
Rashes, "COVID Toes," And Other Potential Symptoms Of Coronavirus Are Still Being Investigated
Also in late March, a group of dermatologists published a letter in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology stating that skin rashes might be a symptom of COVID-19. In 88 patients, 20% presented with rashes over the course of their experience with the virus. Another report in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that some COVID-19 patients could have rashes that could be mistaken for other illnesses, while a separate report found that lesions in the hands and feet might also be indicators of COVID-19.
Dermatologists are reporting patients with purple lesions, swelling, and blisters on the feet that look a little like frostbite, a symptom tentatively being called "COVID toes."
"There have been a handful of cases of people who are asymptomatic other than these painful skin lesions on their extremities," says Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health. "[It] could be from inflammation of small blood vessels caused by the virus, or small blood clots caused by the virus," she says of the few theories behind this possible symptom, but it’s "still too early to say" if this definitely indicates coronavirus.
Other viruses are known to trigger skin irritation. Dr. Elliott says that in general, viral rashes "can either be caused by the virus itself attacking the skin cells, or commonly, by the immune system response triggering the release of histamine, which is responsible for itching, redness, and swelling."
Conjunctivitis, better known as pink eye, is another possible symptom, as the American Academy of Opthalmology (AAO) noted in an April 21 statement.
As researchers begin to look at the experiences of long-haul COVID patients, AKA those who’ve been sick longer than 14 days, they’re discovering other self-reported symptoms. According to a survey conducted by a researcher from Indiana University’s School of Medicine, members of a long-hauler Facebook group reported hair loss after contracting the coronavirus. Out of over 1,500 people surveyed, around a third said they notice their hair falling out, among other symptoms like night sweats, anxiety, or difficulty sleeping. Today reported that it’s possible this symptom has to do with the stress of managing the virus, or even of the pandemic itself. While it’s a small study that’s just been published online, the researchers noted it’s helpful to get a broader picture of the symptoms people with the disease are reporting in order to more thoroughly understand it.
How Long The Coronavirus Takes To Show Up
A study conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers found that symptoms of coronavirus shows up after five days of exposure on average. Two weeks is thought to be the maximum incubation period for coronavirus, or the longest amount of time between exposure and developing symptoms, which is why it’s recommended as a period of self-quarantine if someone is at risk of catching the virus. The CDC notes that symptoms can appear between two and 14 days after exposure.
“Patients should call ahead to their GP if they experience symptoms within 14 days … of coming into contact with someone confirmed as having coronavirus," Dr. Charlotte Hespe, M.B.B.S., DCH., a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, tells Bustle.
Calling ahead before you go to a doctor’s appointment means that they can take appropriate measures to test you and keep you in isolation from other people.
How The Coronavirus Spreads
Currently, scientists believe COVID-19 is spread by contact with respiratory droplets, so washing your hands regularly and wearing a face mask outdoors will help contain it. "Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing," Romero says. Avoiding touching your face, eyes, or mouth can also lower your risk of becoming infected.
What To Do If You Have Coronavirus Symptoms
The most important thing to do if you think you may have the coronavirus, experts say, is to stay at home and away from others. If you have symptoms that could be coronavirus or could be a mix of other illnesses, Dr. Elliott says to "talk to your doctor who can help tease out the diagnosis based on history, timing of symptoms, and possibly testing for other things."
If you need to call 911, whether for your symptoms or another emergency, tell the dispatcher that you or someone in your home is experiencing symptoms. In this situation, it’s a good idea to wear a face mask, Romero says. Call emergency services if you have symptoms that feel severe, such as difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, confusion, or bluish lips, according to the CDC, but not for a cough or slight sore throat, says Hespe.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here.
Dr. Charlotte Hespe, M.B.B.S. DCH., spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
Dr. Andres Romero, M.D., infection disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center
Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health
Lambert, N. J. & Survivor Corps. COVID-19 “Long Hauler” Symptoms Survey Report. Indiana UniversitySchool of Medicine 2020.
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