These days, it can be difficult to tell whether you have a cold, the flu, or COVID since many of the symptoms overlap. So, how can you tell if you have COVID-19? Knowing which condition your symptoms are related to can help you get the treatment you need quickly, getting you back on your feet. As always, please talk to your doctor if you have questions or concerns about your medical condition.
COVID-19 is an upper respiratory infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Most symptoms affect the lungs, nose, and throat. These are 10 common COVID symptoms you may experience according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1:
- Fever or chills: Over the course of a COVID-19 infection, you may have a fever or chills. Fevers are the body’s way of trying to kill the virus causing the infection. They also help activate the immune system to fight against the virus, making it harder for it to survive.2 You may also experience chills with higher fevers.3
- Shortness of breath: COVID-19 attacks the lungs, specifically the cells that line the airways. This causes fluid and debris to build up in them, making it difficult to breathe.4 You may experience shortness of breath or tightness in the chest.
- Cough: Similar to shortness of breath, cough is also a common symptom of COVID-19. Since the virus mainly affects the airways in the lungs, you may find yourself coughing more than normal to clear out any fluid or debris.4
- New loss of taste or smell: Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 can infect and damage the specialized cells that help us smell and taste. Some people lose taste and/or smell briefly with a COVID infection, and they typically return within 60 days of recovering.5
- Congestion or runny nose: COVID-19 causes inflammation in the nasal passages and sinuses, and your body responds by making clear mucus. The virus becomes trapped in this mucus and is flushed out of the nose.6,7
- Fatigue: Fatigue is common when you’re sick, and it’s one of the most reported symptoms during and after COVID-19 infections. While researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes it, they believe it’s due to a mix of inflammation, and changes in sleeping and eating patterns.8
- Headache: Studies show that around half of people with COVID-19 develop headaches or migraines. They usually begin early in infection and can be a sign that you’re becoming sick.9
- Sore throat: Sore throat is another COVID-19 symptom that appears early on with infection.10 The SARS-CoV-2 virus is spread by breathing in viral particles, which can replicate in the throat. This causes inflammation, leading to a sore throat.11
- Muscle or body aches: If you’ve been lying in bed for a few days with COVID-19, you may have achy muscles or joints. Try to get up and stretch often to avoid this. Heat and ice can also be applied to painful areas.12
- Nausea/vomiting: While most COVID-19 symptoms affect the lungs and head, studies show that nausea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are common as well. Researchers aren’t quite sure why this is, but they believe that cells in the GI tract may also become infected with SARS-CoV-2, causing symptoms.13
While the symptoms above are more commonly described than others, it’s important to note that COVID-19 can affect different people in different ways. There are a wide variety of symptoms reported, from mild to severe. If you have questions about your symptoms, you should talk to your doctor.
Many of these symptoms can also be related to the flu or cold virus. Testing is the only way to confirm a diagnosis for COVID-19.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, talk to your doctor about your treatment options. COVID-19 is caused by a virus, so it cannot be treated with antibiotics. However, there are antiviral and antibody therapies available to help. These medications work best when started earlier rather than later, so be sure to make an appointment if you notice these COVID symptoms.14
For treating more mild symptoms with over-the-counter medications, the CDC recommends using acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help.14
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms. March 22, 2022. Accessed from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
2. MedlinePlus. Fever. December 15, 2016. Accessed from: https://medlineplus.gov/fever.html
3. MedlinePlus. Chills. January 16, 2021. Accessed from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003091.htm
4. American Lung Association. Learn About COVID-19. June 9, 2022. Accessed from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/covid-19/about-covid-19
5. Cleveland Clinic. Loss of Taste and Smell. March 9, 2022. Accessed from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/16708-loss-of-taste-and-smell
6. Cleveland Clinic. Runny Nose. April 19, 2021. Accessed from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17660-runny-nose
7. Straburynski M, et al. COVID-19 -related headache and sinonasal inflammation: A longitudinal study analysing the role of acute rhinosinusitis and ICHD-3 classification difficulties in SARS-CoV-2 infection. Cephalagia. 2022. 42(3):218-228.
8. Azzolino D, Cesari M. Fatigue in the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Healthy Longev. 2022. 3(3):e128-e129.
9. Rocha-Filho, P. Headache associated with COVID-19: Epidemiology, characteristics, pathophysiology, and management. Headache. 2022. 62(6):650-656.
10. Savtale S, et al. Prevalence of Otorhinolaryngological Symptoms in Covid 19 Patients. Indian J Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2021. 1-7.
11. Mount Sinai. Pharyngitis – viral. January 29, 2022. Accessed from: https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/diseases-conditions/pharyngitis-viral
12. MyHealth.Alberta.ca. Symptoms: Joint and muscle pain. March 23, 2021. Accessed from: https://myhealth.alberta.ca/after-covid/symptoms/joint-and-muscle-pain
13. Zhang T, et al. The roles of nausea and vomiting in COVID-19: did we miss something? J Microbiol Immunol Infect. 2021. 54(4):541-546.
14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Treatments and Medications. April 29, 2022. Accessed from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/treatments-for-severe-illness.html
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