Coronavirus Symptoms and Complications

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When coronaviruses infect people, they cause respiratory illnesses. Some strains cause the common cold, while other strains can cause very severe respiratory disease or syndrome (SARS). COVID-19, which stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019, involves a strain that is new in humans. It is a betacoronavirus like MERS (2012 outbreak) and SARS (2003 outbreak). Scientists named the newly discovered virus SARS-CoV-2. On March 11, 2020, the World Heath Organization announced that COVID-19 is a pandemic due to its rapid spread across the globe and its severity.

The COVID-19 Symptom Comparison Chart highlights some differences between COVID-19, flu, and the common cold. To help protect yourself and your family, know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, how the infection progresses, and who is most at risk of developing coronavirus, or COVID-19 complications.

Coronavirus Symptoms

COVID-19 symptoms are very similar to influenza (flu). They include:

  • Cough, which may produce phlegm (sputum)
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

Symptoms may appear within 2 to 14 days of becoming infected; the median is 5 days. COVID-19 symptoms are usually mild—fever, dry cough, some body aches, maybe shortness of breath—and begin gradually. Experts believe about 20% of people with the infection never develop symptoms or feel sick, but they are still contagious. This makes it very different from MERS and SARS, which are usually severe and often deadly. It also makes it different from the flu, which usually starts very suddenly.

Mild COVID-19 symptoms last a few days to a week, but it can take a couple of weeks for symptoms to subside in some cases. Some people experience more uncomfortable symptoms, including fever above 100.4°F, chills, cough, body aches, and fatigue. Anyone with shortness of breath or chest pain should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Unlike the flu, COVID-19 usually causes mild disease in children. In fact, the disease tends to be more like the common cold in children. At this time, young children do not seem to be a high-risk group unless they have an underlying condition, such as asthma. However, there have been cases of serious disease and some children have died of COVID-19.

What to Do If You Have Flu-like Symptoms

Anyone with symptoms of cough, fever, and shortness of breath should seek prompt medical care.* Call ahead to your doctor or urgent care clinic first. They will ask you questions and give you special instructions to follow. Your doctor can test you for COVID-19, but may also test you for the flu virus. (A rapid flu diagnosis within the first 48 hours allows for treatment with antivirals that can shorten the illness.) Call your pediatrician or an urgent care clinic if your infant has a fever or difficulty breathing. If you have mild symptoms or common cold symptoms, you may not need COVID-19 or flu testing. Self-isolate and contact your medical provider for advice based on your symptoms and health history.

*If you know you were exposed to a person with COVID-19, contact your doctor about COVID-19 testing. You may also contact your county or state health department for more information about testing, including free testing sites. If your doctor's office collects your nasal or throat swab, they will send the sample to a lab to determine if you have an active coronavirus infection. Some clinics, community testing sites, and doctors' offices have access to COVID-19 rapid testing.

COVID-19 Treatment

For most people, treating COVID-19 is much the same as treating the flu. It focuses on resting and treating the symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Unlike the influenza virus, there is no widely available antiviral medicine to shorten the duration of symptoms. However, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recently approved two different drugs (monoclonal antibodies that target the COVID-19 virus) for people with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 at high risk for developing more severe disease. The antibodies reduce the risk of emergency visits and hospitalizations.

The FDA also approved an antiviral medicine, remdesivir, for children 12 and older and adults hospitalized with COVID-19. It has been shown to shorten recovery time and improve outcomes in some cases.

Antibiotics aren’t effective for COVID-19, as it is caused by a virus and antibiotics only treat bacterial infections. However, people with COVID-19 diagnosed with a bacterial infection—such as bacterial pneumonia—will be given antibiotics.  

Potential Coronavirus Complications

Some people develop a severe case of COVID-19. Older people and anyone with chronic medical conditions, such as heart problems, diabetes or obesity have the highest risk of severe COVID-19. They may develop difficulty breathing, pain with breathing, and other serious respiratory symptoms. It can take several weeks or longer to recover. Those who develop a serious illness with COVID-19 require hospitalization to help prevent and treat complications. Possible complications include:

  • Kidney injury
  • Liver injury
  • Heart problems
  • Neurological problems
  • Pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome

Treatment options for people with severe COVID-19 may include supplemental oxygen, remdesivir, steroids, anticoagulants, and mechanical ventilation if necessary. In some cases, complications of COVID-19 are fatal; the U.S. mortality rate is 1.8%.

Contact your health department for the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 cases in your state and county. For general COVID-19 information, visit the CDC or WHO websites.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Feb 28
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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