Update, April 29: The CDC has updated its guidelines to include chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache, and a new loss of taste or smell as symptoms of Covid-19, in addition to fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
So you’re not feeling well, and you’re afraid you might be infected with the new coronavirus disease, Covid-19. Given that the United States now has more confirmed cases than any other country, and more are popping up, that might be a reasonable suspicion.
Health officials are ramping up the response measures, advising people to stay at home as much as possible. Several states and cities have now imposed more severe measures like lockdowns and stay-at-home-orders to contain the virus.
But cases of Covid-19 are following an exponential growth trajectory in the US. That means that the number of infections is rising rapidly in proportion to the number of people infected. You may have been exposed if you have traveled to a region with novel coronavirus transmission or if you’ve been in close contact with someone who has Covid-19, something that’s becoming harder to avoid without social distancing. And some people spreading the virus may not show any symptoms at all.
Here are some signs you may have the illness:
Some symptoms are more frequently seen than others. Based on confirmed cases in China, the WHO says 88 percent of infected people experienced a fever and 67.7 percent had a dry cough. Less frequent symptoms include thick mucus from coughs (sputum) (33.4 percent), shortness of breath (18.6 percent), sore throat (13.9 percent), and headache (13.6 percent).
It’s likely, however, that many infected patients with very minor or no symptoms were not captured by this study, which would mean their symptoms (or lack thereof) were underrepresented in those statistics.
“Covid-19 disease usually begins with mild fever, dry cough, sore throat and malaise,” writes Megan Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, in an FAQ for the Abundance Foundation. “Unlike the coronavirus infections that cause the common cold, it is not usually associated with a runny nose.”
These symptoms emerge five or six days after infection on average, but can show up in as little as a day or as much as two weeks after exposure.
Doctors and researchers have also found some other symptoms associated with Covid-19, though they haven’t been recognized as diagnostic criteria by the WHO or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A recent, yet-to-be-published German study found that some Covid-19 patients can present with the symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection, similar to the common cold: runny nose, congestion, and sneezing. (The study involved a very small number of patients, however.)
In a study of 204 Covid-19 patients, researchers in China found that half of patients experienced gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology reported that Covid-19 can present as conjunctivitis, causing red or pink, itchy eyes.
Using a Covid symptom tracker app for smartphones, researchers in the United Kingdom recently found that a peculiar loss of taste or smell had strong links to testing positive for Covid-19. Some researchers now say that anosmia, a loss of the sense of smell, and ageusia, a loss of the sense of taste, should be considered Covid-19 symptoms. These symptoms can precede others by several days so they can be an early warning sign of infection.
If you have symptoms, what should you do?
People with symptoms in one of the high-risk groups — those who are over 65 years old; people with diabetes, hypertension, or preexisting breathing problems; or people being treated for cancer — should quickly seek medical advice or treatment. Call your health care provider before heading to a clinic if you suspect you may have Covid-19. That way, the clinic can take appropriate precautions for your visit.
If you’re not in a high-risk group and have symptoms, mild or severe, you should also call a health professional — a doctor, a nurse, or a public health official. They will work with your local health department and figure out whether you need to get tested or get treatment. And make no mistake: While older people face the highest risks, all age groups can get sick from Covid-19, so everyone needs to take precautions and pay attention to their symptoms.
Doctors and health officials advise not to go to the emergency room if your symptoms do not appear to be life-threatening.
Also, don’t panic. Most people who get infected get better, often on their own with just rest, fluids, and fever medication. If you are advised to stay home, there are several other measures you should take, according to the CDC.
The most important step is to avoid exposing other people to the illness, especially in the early stages of symptoms, when the disease is most contagious. That means staying home from school or work, avoiding public transit or ride-hail services, and separating yourself from the people and animals in your home. It also means avoiding sharing household items like towels, dishes, and bedding.
Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue over your mouth and nose. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Clean the surfaces in your home that you come into contact with regularly, like counters, doorknobs, bedside tables, keyboards, and phones. “It is possible that some of the viral particles ... end up on surfaces (door handles, subway poles, coins) where they might remain viable,” Murray writes.
When leaving your home, wear a surgical face mask if possible to avoid spreading the virus if you’re sick. Officials are urging the public not to buy N95 masks because they are needed by health workers and are in short supply. But other face coverings can be used, and the CDC has recommended cloth masks for everyone in certain public settings.
All the while, pay close attention to your symptoms. Call your health care provider if your symptoms get worse. If you have a health emergency and need to call 911, let the dispatcher know that you may have Covid-19 so responders can prepare.
And everyone, with or without symptoms, should observe social distancing guidelines. That’s because infected people can spread the virus to others, even without experiencing symptoms themselves.
These steps may seem tedious, but remember that they serve to protect not just you but also the people around you. Controlling an outbreak is everyone’s job.