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The covid-19 symptoms to watch out for

Coronavirus or covid-19 symptoms range from mild to severe. They’re most likely to be similar to a regular cold, the flu or seasonal allergies. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Symptoms of covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, can range from mild to severe. The most common include fever, a dry cough or shortness of breath, but there are other indications you could need to be tested or have a conversation with your doctor.

Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, and the order in which they appear can vary. Some people don’t show any symptoms — what health experts call “asymptomatic” cases — but still could spread the virus to others.

Although this list is not inclusive of every possible symptom, it includes what physicians and health experts have determined are the most common. Some of these symptoms will coincide with one another. Symptoms of a coronavirus infection can emerge anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Fever, cough or shortness of breath

Fever, cough or shortness of breath are the highest-frequency symptoms of covid-19. According to a study of symptoms in about 11,000 adult covid-19 patients, at least one of these symptoms was reported in 93 percent of cases.

Fever or chills

A fever might be the first indication you have a covid-19 infection, according to a recent study that looked at the onset of symptoms.

The fever itself can range from low-grade — maybe only a degree or two higher than normal — to dangerously high. A fever higher than 103 degrees Fahrenheit is considered very high in adults and is a sign of a severe infection.

You can experience chills in which your body feels cold for no apparent reason. It might be a cozy temperature, but you’re still shivering. Chills are most common with a fever, or when a fever is coming on, but they don’t always coincide with fever.


The coronavirus is a respiratory illness, so cough is a common symptom, and it can also appear early in the infection. A dry, persistent cough can be a red flag that you have covid-19.

Shortness of breath

Along with the cough can come shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

Covid-19 can sometimes cause pneumonia, according to Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins.

Pneumonia occurs when “air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid, limiting their ability to take in oxygen and causing shortness of breath, cough and other symptoms,” Galiatsatos writes.

Shortness of breath caused by covid-19 can be mild or severe enough to require treatment with supplemental oxygen or a ventilator.

Catch up on the biggest developments in the pandemic at the end of the day with our free coronavirus newsletter

Fatigue or muscle aches

Sometimes the only indication that you might have of a viral infection is a general sickly feeling, or what physicians call fatigue — a persistent exhaustion that isn’t solved by getting more sleep.

In extreme cases, people who have suffered from covid-19 describe having barely enough energy to walk to the bathroom, or to the kitchen for a glass of water.

Some people report muscle aches or general achiness for no other apparent reason.

Fatigue and aches have also been reported by so-called covid-19 “long-haulers,” who continue to experience symptoms of the illness for weeks or months after becoming infected.


Headache is the most common neurological symptom in covid-19.

Other less-common neurological symptoms could include muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, delirium, seizures and stroke, according to Harvard Medical School.

Loss or distorted sense of smell or taste

The loss of smell or taste is typically linked to early symptoms of upper-respiratory infections — including previous coronavirus strains — because the virus damages olfactory bulbs that are involved in the sense of smell.

It appears to be more common for people who have covid-19, and it’s possible to lose your sense of smell or taste while experiencing no other symptoms.

Another possible symptom is a distorted sense of smell or taste.

Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center, told The Washington Post that certain distortions, including one that causes everything to have a fecal-like odor, can make common food and drinks revolting, because flavor is tied to sense of smell. “Even water can become unpleasant,” he said.

The distortions are most common in people who are recovering from covid-19 and starting to get their smell back, according to Justin Turner, medical director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Smell and Taste Center.

Sore throat, congestion or runny nose

A sore throat, congestion or runny nose are less frequently associated with covid-19, but they still occur in enough cases that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added them to its list.

A runny nose was reported by about 7 percent of adult patients in the study of symptom frequency, while a sore throat was reported by 35 percent.

It can be difficult to determine whether these symptoms are a result of covid-19 or something more benign, such as allergies.

But allergies, which are an overreaction of the immune system to foreign particles, would not trigger things such as a fever, muscle aches or chills, according to Sally Joo Bailey, an allergist at Allergy Associates of Northern Virginia in Arlington. Those are the classic signs of a viral infection, such as covid-19.

Stomach issues

Studies have found that about half of coronavirus patients experience at least one gastrointestinal symptom, which can include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain or discomfort.

In the study of symptom frequency, diarrhea was the most common gastrointestinal-related symptom in adults, and abdominal pain was the least common.

Difference between covid-19 and the flu

The potential winter surge of coronavirus infections could coincide with another major public health event: the seasonal flu. Here's what you need to know. (Video: The Washington Post)

A key difference is the transmissivity: The coronavirus spreads more easily than the flu. Public health officials have encouraged everyone to get vaccinated against the flu this year to help ward off a bad flu season superimposed on a pandemic — and having had a flu shot could also help rule it out if you start to experience any of these symptoms.

Ultimately, infectious-disease doctors say most people won’t be able to tell which illness they have. Common warning signs for both include fever, cough, chills and shortness of breath.

The one symptom that’s common with covid-19, but not with the flu, is loss of taste and smell. But not everyone with covid-19 experiences that symptom, and experts warned that someone with allergies or a cold might also struggle to smell because they have a stuffy nose.

Absent a loss of taste or smell, most patients will need a nasal swab to get a proper diagnosis.

Sindya Bhanoo, Michael Brice-Saddler, Allyson Chiu and Marisa Iati contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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