COVID-19 symptoms: Timeline and progression

Most people will experience mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms for up to two weeks. Symptoms usually begin 2 to 14 days after a person has come into contact with the virus. Symptoms can vary from person to person but may include flu- or cold-like symptoms.

The type, severity, and progression of COVID-19 symptoms will determine how COVID-19 affects a person’s daily living. Some people may experience no symptoms at all, while others will require treatment in a hospital.

Keep reading to learn more about the timeline and progression of COVID-19 symptoms.

There has been some research into the order that COVID-19 symptoms might develop. For example, a 2020 study in Frontiers in Public Health used statistical models to predict how COVID-19 symptoms might develop.

It is important to remember that symptoms will progress differently depending on the person.

Early symptoms: Week 1

COVID-19 symptoms typically occur 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, most commonly after 4 to 5 days. Most people will experience mild-to-moderate symptoms during this period.

The first COVID-19 symptom to develop is likely to be fever, which is a temporary increase in body temperature. This differs from influenza, where the first symptom is typically a cough.

Fever is the most common symptom of COVID-19, occurring in around 78% of COVID-19 cases, according to a 2020 review of data from almost 25,000 adults.

Learn more about the early symptoms of COVID-19 here.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Next symptoms: Week 2

COVID-19 may then cause a cough, sore throat, and body aches or headaches. The Frontiers in Public Health study also suggested that COVID-19 could then cause nausea and vomiting, which would develop sooner than it would in similar respiratory infections, such as MERS or SARS.

In severe cases, COVID-19 can require hospitalization. A 2020 study in The Lancet suggests that this typically occurs after 7 days from the onset of symptoms.

Some people will experience acute respiratory distress syndrome after 9 days. This is where the lungs fail to provide the body with sufficient oxygen. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 20% to 42% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 experience this condition.

In these and other severe cases, doctors may admit people to an intensive care unit around 10 days after symptom onset. Around 26% to 32% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 will require treatment in an intensive care unit.

However, the type and order of symptoms will vary from person to person. For example, some people will experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea before fever or coughing. Others will experience no symptoms at all.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 symptoms could include the following alongside a sore throat:

Some people will experience severe symptoms, such as:

People who experience these symptoms must seek immediate medical attention.

Read more about COVID-19 symptoms here.

According to the CDC, most people can be around other people after 10 days since their symptoms first appeared, as long as they have not experienced fever for 24 hours and other symptoms are improving.

People with severe COVID-19 symptoms or weakened immune systems may need to isolate for longer. The CDC recommends up to 20 days of isolation after symptoms first occur in these cases. However, a doctor may recommend a different duration, depending on the case.

People with a positive test result but without COVID-19 symptoms are still infectious and should isolate for 10 days after the date of the test.

Learn how long a person with COVID-19 is contagious here.

Most people will experience no long-term effects from COVID-19.

However, others may experience long COVID. This is where symptoms persist for several weeks or months. The duration of time that symptoms must persist to constitute long COVID varies. For example, the CDC states that symptoms lasting 4 or more weeks constitute long COVID.

Long COVID can include any COVID-19 symptoms and can occur in people who experienced mild, moderate, or severe symptoms.

Learn more about the long-term effects of COVID-19 here.

There are many variants of SARS-CoV-2 that can cause COVID-19. Each variant is the result of a random mutation of the original virus.

The main variants of concern in the United States are the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants. These variants spread more quickly than the original virus, which can increase the number of hospitalizations or deaths due to COVID-19.

The variants cause similar COVID-19 symptoms. However, some data suggest that the Delta variant is more likely to cause cold-like symptoms, such as:

  • headaches
  • runny nose
  • sore throat

Learn more about novel coronavirus variants here.

Influenza (flu) and COVID-19 are respiratory diseases with similar symptoms. However, the 2020 study in Frontiers in Public Health suggests that cough is more likely to be the first symptom of flu versus COVID-19.

Some symptoms are more common in COVID-19 than flu, such as loss of taste or smell. Both conditions can cause no symptoms at all.

SARS-CoV-2 can also spread more easily than influenza and causes more serious illness.

Read a comparison of COVID-19 and the flu here.

Mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 may not require immediate medical attention. However, it is critical to contact a health professional for symptoms that include:

COVID-19 can cause a range of symptoms for around two weeks. The order of these symptoms will vary from case to case. However, some research suggests fever is most likely to occur first.

Some cases of COVID-19 cause severe symptoms, which typically emerge after around a week. People with these symptoms must seek immediate medical attention.

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