Because COVID-19 symptoms tend to overlap with those of a common cold or influenza, determining if you have the disease and need treatment can be difficult. The most common coronavirus symptoms are shortness of breath, dry cough, fever, and headache. If you have been exposed or believe you are experiencing symptoms, it's essential to get tested right away and quarantine as soon as you can.
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How It Feels to Have COVID-19
Sneezing, coughing, a fever, shortness of breath, fear of being hospitalized - there is so much anxiety around COVID-19 and the Delta variant. While individuals over the age of 60 are particularly more vulnerable to the virus, most younger people will experience mild and non-life-threatening symptoms like cough or sneeze.
Four people below survived COVID-19, reliving their experience of dealing with the virus. With this knowledge in hand, we can better anticipate and manage potential symptoms (like a cough or difficulty breathing), know when to seek medical attention, and prepare for what life will be like if we contract the virus.
"It was nothing like I expected"- Lisa Merck
March 13, 2020 - Lisa Merck, 50, speaking out from self-isolation in Crested Butte, Colorado. She recently returned from a three-week trip to Hawaii. Lisa had a few sniffles during her travels, but when she returned home, she started experiencing some strong muscle aches.
She said it was like someone was stabbing her with an ice pick. Lisa started feeling nauseous and then came down with a fever. Shortness of breath and fatigue appeared, and she later received a positive test result for coronavirus. From her experience, the muscle aches were the worst, but the shortness of breath and exhaustion were also intense.
"This is how it went down for me"- Hillary Dianne
On March 11, Hillary Diane was discharged from the ER after her experience with suspected coronavirus went viral on Facebook. Hillary lives in Massachusetts, down the street from the Biogen conference site where over 70 people were infected. She had also traveled to NYC just the week before. She reportedly did not meet the CDC guidelines for directly contacting someone who had tested positive. The hospital could not provide the test for COVID-19 due to a shortage in capacity at the MA Department of Public Health.
Diane came into close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 but was discharged from the ER to go home and self-quarantine.
"This is how it went down for me:
- Monday 3/9: slight tickle in my throat, but I thought nothing of it.
- Tuesday 3/10: cough and shortness of breath started, worsened noticeably throughout the day. Body aches and general malaise started as well. I barely slept overnight due to coughing.
- Wednesday 3/11: cough and shortness of breath are persistent, and here we are. I also do not have a fever but was told that high fever doesn't present in all cases - COVID-19 manifests differently depending on age, general health, and other existing conditions.
This is going to be very disruptive to both my personal and professional life. But, my concern around this whole situation - beyond the scope of my personal experience - is the well-being of those who are more vulnerable."
"If your symptoms aren't life-threatening, simply stay at home, drink lots of water, get a lot of rest and check out the shows you want to binge-watch."- Elizabeth Schneider.
Elizabeth Schneider, a 37-year-old from Seattle, Washington, first began experiencing flu-like symptoms on February 25, which occurred three days after she attended a party with someone carrying COVID-19. She initially felt some fatigue, like a bad cold, followed by a headache, fever, and body aches. Thinking that a nap would relieve some of her symptoms, Elizabeth woke up with a body temperature of 103 degrees.
She felt the chills and started shivering. She was up to date with her flu shot, so Elizabeth began to suspect she had something more serious after reading several posts on social media. To cope, she took some over-the-counter flu medication and rested in her home. Being in the scientific community, Elizabeth enrolled herself in a research program called the Seattle Flu Study and was mailed a nasal swab kit by the researchers, which she mailed back. And the wait began...
On March 7, Elizabeth got a positive result for COVID-19. Though surprised, she felt a sense of relief - "I was a little bit pleasantly surprised because I thought it was a little bit cool," she told the AFP, adding that she found it interesting from a "scientific perspective."
"When we got on the plane, I fell asleep next to my wife. Two hours later, I woke up with a 103-plus fever."- Carl Goldman
Carl Goldman, 67-years-old, was on the infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and left the ship to fly back to the United States. More than 700 people on the ship were infected with COVID-19. Carl and his wife left before the quarantine was lifted. Little did he know there was a birthday surprise waiting for him. On his way back, Carl woke up from a nap with a 103-degree fever. While his fever broke by the time he reached America, he started experiencing massive body fatigue.
"Feeling like it had been punched a few times," He was admitted to a biocontainment center in Omaha, Nebraska, where he just had a lingering dry cough.
While in isolation, Carl celebrated his 67th birthday. The hospital staff delivered him a surprise birthday cake and sang "Happy Birthday" through the two-way monitors. "It's just funny," Carl said. "Who would've thought my 67th birthday would've been in the biocontainment center in Omaha?"
How It Feels to Have COVID-19 After Being Vaccinated
Will Stone, Health & Science News Editor at NPR, shares his experience after his breakthrough COVID-19 infection after being vaccinated:
"It was a miserable five days. My legs and arms ached, my fever crept up to 103, and every few hours of sleep would leave my sheets drenched in sweat. I'd drop into bed exhausted after a quick trip down to the kitchen. To sum it up, I'd put my breakthrough case of COVID-19 right up there with my worst bouts of flu. Even after my fever cleared up, I spent the next few weeks feeling low.
Of course, I am very lucky. I didn't go up against the virus with a naive immune system, like millions of Americans did until vaccines were widely available. And, in much of the world, vaccines are still a distant promise.
"You probably would have gotten much sicker if you had not been vaccinated," Francesca Torriani, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Diego, explained to me recently.
As I shuffled around my room checking my fever, it was also reassuring to know that my chances of ending up in the hospital were slim, even with the delta variant. And now, about a month later, I've made a full recovery."
If you contract COVID-19 even after becoming fully vaccinated, you will often experience similar symptoms to those not vaccinated. It will most likely present as a headache, runny nose or congestion, a sore throat, and a loss of smell. However, the symptoms will most likely not last as long, and you will get better more quickly.
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Common COVID-19 Symptoms
When contracting coronavirus, symptoms range from mild to severe and can look different in everyone. Most people will contract mild symptoms if they are infected with COVID-19. However, if you are older or have an underlying medical condition, you are more likely to experience more severe and life-threatening symptoms.
After being exposed to COVID-19, symptoms will take anywhere from 2-14 days to become noticeable. At first, you may even suspect that you have a common cold. Make sure to get a COVID-19 test as soon as you begin to experience any of the following symptoms to prevent the further spreading of the virus. Even if you are asymptomatic (have no signs of COVID-19), but know you have been exposed, make sure to get tested and quarantine yourself to ensure the safety of others.
According to the CDC, people with the following symptoms may have COVID-19:
- Congestion or runny nose
- Muscle aches and pains
- New loss of taste/smell
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
As your case of COVID-19 progresses and becomes more intense, you may experience one or more of these symptoms:
- Cough is more persistent
- Fever is above 100.4°F
- Temporary shortness of breath when doing activities like walking up the stairs
- Want to stay in bed all-day
If they persist, make sure to call your doctor immediately to prevent the virus from developing into something else, like pneumonia.
The following are emergency warning signs of COVID-19. If you are experiencing any of them or other symptoms, you would describe as severe, call 911 immediately or go to the emergency room.
- Inability to stay awake
- New confusion
- Pale/gray/blue-colored skin, lips, or nails
- Persistent pain
- Pressure in chest
- Trouble breathing
Delta Variant Symptoms
The symptoms of the Delta variant appear to be the same as the original version of COVID-19. However, physicians are seeing people getting sicker quicker, especially younger people. Recent research found that the Delta variant grows more rapidly with greater levels in the respiratory tract.
Usually, people are either asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms if they contract the Delta variant. Their symptoms are more like those of a common cold, such as cough, fever, or headache, with the addition of significant loss of smell.
Long Term Effects of COVID-19
As people have recovered from COVID-19, many are beginning to see lasting effects on their health, even past their quarantine. These problems could be affecting one's life months after they have contracted the virus. When this occurs, the person will test negative for COVID-19 since the virus no longer lives in their body.
This is most commonly known as post-COVID syndrome. There is no known cause for long-term COVID symptoms and can even occur in those who initially only had a mild case of the virus.
Most commonly, people see problems with their breathing. Experts say that it can take months for a person's lungs to recover after having coronavirus. A severe case can even cause scarring in the lung tissue. In addition to these breathing issues, there have been reports of heart problems, kidney damage, distorted taste/smell, and more. The CDC states that people may see a combination of these effects:
- Changes in period cycle
- Diarrhea/other bowel problems
- Dizziness when standing
- Fast-beating heart
- Foggy brain
- Joint pain
- Pins-and-needles feeling
- Sleep problems
There are also complications associated with hospitalization for COVID-19. After being in the intensive care unit (ICU) for too long, one can develop post-intensive care syndrome (PCIS). Side effects can include extreme weakness, problems with thinking, and even PTSD.
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COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below we provide answers to some frequently asked questions about the virus, the vaccine, and testing.
Where can I get a COVID-19 vaccine?
Luckily, COVID-19 vaccine distribution is widely available and comes at no cost to you. There are currently three recommended vaccines to prevent COVID-19: Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson&Johnson. All of these are safe and effective, so don't wait around for a specific brand. Currently, only those 12 and older are eligible to receive Pfizer and 18 and older for both Moderna and Johnson&Johnson. You can visit vaccines.gov to find the closest COVID-19 vaccine to you.
How long do I have to quarantine for?
The CDC recommends that you quarantine for 14 days since your last known exposure to COVID. During this time, you should limit your interactions with those that you live with and stay at least 6 feet away from them at all times. It's also recommended that you wear a mask, sleep in your own room, and use your own bathroom to prevent any further spread to those around you.
Where can I get a COVID-19 test?
You can find testing sites close to you through the USERCDC Department of Health and Human Services. Mira can also help you book a test through urgent care or a lab facility. Rapid tests can also be obtained, but they may come at an additional cost to you.
Should I get the vaccine if I've had COVID-19 before?
Yes, even if you have had COVID in the past, it is still essential to get the vaccine. Although experts know that contracting the virus means there will be antibodies in your system, they are still unsure how protective they are against the virus and how long they remain in your body. You can get the vaccine as long as you are no longer at risk of spreading the virus to others.
Understanding the basic signs and symptoms of COVID-19 is a key step in preventing it to other people. If you believe you have been exposed, or are experiencing any common symptoms, make sure to get tested as soon as possible to protect those around you. The best way to combat the ongoing pandemic is to get vaccinated, which you can do as soon as you are out of quarantine and not contagious to others.
Khang T. Vuong received his Master of Healthcare Administration from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. He was named Forbes Healthcare 2021 30 under 30. Vuong spoke at Stanford Medicine X, HIMSS conference, and served as a Fellow at the Bon Secours Health System.