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What does it feel like to have COVID-19, and when should I seek help?

COVID-19 shares plenty of symptom overlap with the cold, influenza and other common respiratory illnesses. We asked an infectious disease expert what to look out for, and when to seek help.
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Is your persistent cough a sign of seasonal allergies, influenza, or COVID-19?

Mild cases of COVID-19 share plenty of symptoms in common with seasonal respiratory illnesses. For that reason, knowing whether you have contracted the disease and when you might need to get treatment can be confusing.

So what does it actually feel like to have COVID-19? We asked M Health Fairview Infectious Disease Physician Susan Kline, MD, MPH, to shed some light on the subject.

“The most common symptoms people experience are cough, fever, and shortness of breath,” Kline said. “But not all these symptoms happen in every person. The disease is quite variable and everyone is different.”

Fever seems to be one of the most common early markers of COVID-19, Kline noted. But don’t expect a high-grade fever with dangerously elevated temperatures. Many people with the disease run a low-grade fever for days, she said, but some may have no fever at all. Other non-specific symptoms can include sore throat, fatigue, myalgia or muscle aches, diarrhea and headache similar to cold and flu symptoms. These symptoms can appear between two and 14 days after exposure.

“We are also hearing some anecdotal reports that some people lose their sense of smell,” Kline added.

Not everyone will experience the same level of severity. Some who have tested positive for COVID-19 remain largely asymptomatic. Others have reported weakness and shortness of breath so severe they could barely sit up in bed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) previously listed three known symptoms, but on April 28 the CDC updated its guidance. The list of identified symptoms now includes:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

If you believe you have COVID-19, visit OnCare.org, our 24/7 online clinic, to get screened. Most people who contract COVID-19 will be able to recover at home. But a number of risk factors increase the chances of experiencing a more severe case.

“People over 60 as well as those with underlying heart or lung disease are more at risk for developing more serious complications,” Kline said. “Young people seem to be affected with more serious cases of the disease to a much lower degree.”

 So when should you consider seeking advanced care for yourself or a loved one?

“If you are having a hard time breathing, that is a sign that you or a family member should contact a medical provider,” Kline said. Other emergency warning signs can include persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face.

If you suspect you have COVID-19 and need urgent treatment, Kline recommends that you call the hospital before arriving so that healthcare workers know you are coming and can make preparations to reduce the risk of exposure for others.

Those experiencing a medical emergency should call 911.


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