As more cases of the new coronavirus are diagnosed throughout the U.S. (currently, there are 981,246 confirmed or presumptively positive cases of the illness known as COVID-19 here as of April 28, per the CDC), many people are wondering how they can prepare, what it's like to have it, and how long the symptoms last.
A study published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that, of the 44,672 COVID-19 cases that were confirmed in China by February 11, more than 36,000 (81 percent) of those cases were mild. The study, which is the largest conducted to date on novel coronavirus, specifically defined “mild” as cases that didn’t involve pneumonia, or involved only mild pneumonia.
The virus type can be especially risky for the elderly and immunocompromised, so it's important to understand how to prevent the spread of the virus (by washing your hands, staying inside, and taking these other precautions), and how to identify it. The upper respiratory virus may present mildly, similar to a cold, or severely, like a really bad flu, depending on the person infected. Here's what you need to know about novel coronavirus symptoms, and how long the virus lasts.
First, where and when did COVID-19 start?
The COVID-19 strain of coronavirus appears to be brand new; it originated in Wuhan City, China, around December 2019. Similar to other past coronavirus strain outbreaks, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), this virus likely infected animals first and then was transmitted to humans.
Experts think that open markets in Asia, where food and livestock are often in close proximity, could have been the source of the infection. From there, the virus spread from person to person primarily through close contact and airborne particles.
What are the symptoms of this type of coronavirus?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between new coronavirus symptoms and the seasonal flu, but the CDC lists the main tell-tale symptoms as: cough and shortness of breath. With a severe case of COVID-19, a person may experience weakness, lethargy, and fever for a prolonged period of time. However, in some cases, a person might not even show symptoms of having the virus but could still test positive if they’ve been exposed to it. Each case of COVID-19 presents differently, but the CDC lists the following as possible COVID-19 symptoms:
- Sore throat
- Repeated shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- New loss of taste or smell
Some folks who have tested positive for COVID-19 have also experienced a loss of smell and taste, which is one of the more newly discovered signs. Many doctors have also noticed that some people who have tested positive for COVID-19 *only* experience this symptom. This symptom is only based in anecdotal evidence as of now, but there are enough reported cases that medical professionals do believe loss of smell and taste should be considered a COVID-19 symptom, and it should be screened for as a symptom.
New evidence also suggests that people diagnosed with COVID-19 are starting to develop rashes on the skin. These rashes can vary in severity and location on the body, but most of them are erythematous, which means that they look patchy, red, and sometimes cause mild itching. “We don’t understand exactly why, but many viruses that cause upper respiratory tract infections also cause rashes in the skin known as exanthems,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, previously told WH.
Exanthems are typically widespread rashes, and in the case of COVID-19 most patients found their irritation on the trunk of their bodies. (The 'trunk' includes the chest, back, shoulders and abdomen.) That said, just because you have a rash doesn't mean you're infected as rashes can be caused by any number of physical ailments. For patients with COVID-19, skin issues are usually partnered with other signs of the virus as well.
If you're showing some of these symptoms and think you've been exposed or in contact with someone with the virus, the CDC recommends calling your doctor first before showing up to their office to get tested—they'll be able to determine if it's worth it for you to come in and receive testing at that time.
How long is the incubation period of novel coronavirus?
If you contract the virus, symptoms may appear anywhere between two and 14 days after you contracted it. Estimates suggest COVID-19 symptoms tend to appear around five days after exposure.
“If someone is under observation (say, after travel to an area with an outbreak), they are monitored for 14 days for possible onset of symptoms,” says Eudene Harry, MD, an emergency medicine physician in Orlando, Florida. If you haven't developed symptoms at that point, you’re likely in the clear.
How long does novel coronavirus last in a person?
How long the symptoms last depends on the severity of the case. With more mild cases (meaning that symptoms are similar to the common cold or flu), people tend to get better on their own in 10 to 14 days, Dr. Harry explains.
In severe cases, the virus may travel to the lungs and cause pneumonia, and the symptoms may last longer. “These individuals are usually hospitalized and treated aggressively and symptomatically until symptoms resolve,” Dr. Harry explains. In those cases, she says, doctors will run a CT scan of the lungs to see how the virus is affecting the lungs, and to determine whether or not it’s improving or getting worse.
When do you stop being contagious?
Officially clearing someone with this type of coronavirus depends on the person and the severity of the case. They have to pass a number of tests first, Dr. Harry explains: Their symptoms must improve, their temperature must be normal without a fever reducer, and they must have four COVID-19 tests completed to show a person has recovered from the virus. Doctors collect one swab from the throat and one swab from the nose, and then at least 24 hours later, they repeat the same tests before deeming someone cleared of the virus. It’s pretty specific, she notes.
Being completely cleared wouldn’t happen any sooner than 14 days, though, since the virus’ incubation period is two weeks. “If all medical professionals involved in a case are in agreement, then the person can be cleared to return to normal activities,” Dr. Harry says.
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