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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 quite variable and everyone is different. Many people who are infected show no symptoms, but can still spread the disease.”  

Fever seems to be to one of the most common early markers of COVID-19, Kline noted. But you shouldn’t necessarily expect a high-grade fever with dangerously elevated temperatures. Many people with the disease run a low-grade fever for days, she said, and some may have no fever at all. 

Other symptoms can include sore throat, nasal congestion, fatigue, myalgia or muscle aches, and headache – many of which are similar to cold and flu symptoms. People with COVID-19 might also experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Related symptoms include new loss of taste or smell.

These symptoms can appear between two and 14 days after exposure. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC)  current list of identified symptoms includes: 

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing 
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

COVID-19 testing may help you identify whether you have the disease, or simply have allergies or another respiratory illness. Learn how you can get tested for COVID-19

Not everyone will experience the same level of symptom severity, Kline noted. Some who have tested positive COVID-19 might only experience a mild or asymptomatic case. Others have reported having weakness and shortness of breath that was so severe they could barely sit up in bed. 

Though most people who contract COVID-19 will be able to recover at home, there are a number of risk factors that increase the chances of someone experiencing a more severe case, Kline said. 

Adults 65-74 years old are five times more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 than people 18 to 29 years of age, according to CDC data.

“People over 60 as well as those with underlying heart or lung disease are more at risk for developing more serious complications,” Kline said. People with other chronic medical conditions like cancer, type 2 diabetes, or chronic kidney disease may also be at higher risk, according to the CDC.

“Though young people can still get a severe, life-threatening case of COVID-19, the risk appears to be much lower than in older adults,” Kline added.

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 wake or stay awake, and a bluish lips or face. 

If you suspect you have COVID-19 and are seeking treatment, Kline recommends that you call the hospital or clinic before arriving so that healthcare workers know you are coming and can prepare. 

“If people have any questions, they should always contact their medical provider for advice,” Kline said. Those experiencing a medical emergency should always call 911. 

When will you be able to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines in Minnesota, and are they safe? Visit our COVID-19 vaccine resource for updates. 

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