‘What Are the Symptoms?’ ‘What Should I Do if I Feel Sick?’ and Other Coronavirus Questions

Here’s what to do if you feel sick and are worried it may be the coronavirus.

Credit...Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

More than six months on and the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe. In the United States, where the economy is slowly reopening, infection rates in certain states are surging to pre-lockdown levels.

We’re learning new information about the virus at a pace as rapid as ever, but don’t let that volume send you into a panic about your health and that of your loved ones.

“The mantra is, ‘Keep calm and carry on,’” said Dr. Marguerite Neill, an infectious disease expert at Brown University.

Here’s a list of answers to some frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak and its symptoms.

Common symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, include fever, a dry cough, fatigue, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache, a loss of the sense of taste or smell and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The illness can cause lung lesions and pneumonia. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common.

Patients may also exhibit gastrointestinal problems or diarrhea; we are continuing to learn about different symptoms over time.

Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days. In some cases, people who had appeared stable rapidly deteriorated in the second week; anyone infected needs careful monitoring.

The C.D.C. says the following symptoms — if you are otherwise healthy — should prompt you to seek emergency treatment.

The first step you can take to help safeguard your loved ones and your community is to stay home, except to get medical care. In general, the C.D.C. recommends you call a medical professional if you notice symptoms or think you’ve been in contact with someone who might have been exposed.

Don’t rush to the emergency room unless you have severe symptoms. Though hospitals in states hardest hit early in the pandemic are no longer facing a crush of patients, other states are seeing hospitalization rates surge, so it’s best to call your doctor before going in.

When you call your doctor, he or she will advise whether you should come in. If you do, calling ahead of time will help the doctor prepare for your visit and prevent the spread of the virus to other people in the office. Be sure to wear a mask when you go to the doctor’s office and when you’re around other people. If you cannot find a mask, you can sew one or create a makeshift one from a scarf or a T-shirt.

Latest Updates: The Coronavirus Outbreak


The C.D.C. also suggests that you avoid public transportation, ride-sharing services and taxis, and that you separate yourself from other people and animals in your home as soon as possible. That means not letting anyone enter your room and, ideally, not sharing bathrooms. Others should stay at least three feet away from you and avoid any surface you might have coughed on or touched, including doorknobs, plates, cups and towels. Disinfect the environment as much as possible.

The landscape for testing looks far better than it did in the early days of the outbreak, and hundreds of thousands of tests a day are being conducted in the United States. In some areas, it is so widely available that public health officials have complained they do not have enough takers.

Follow the same steps listed above if you think someone in your household may be infected.

The coronavirus has largely spared children, and most confirmed to be infected have had only mild symptoms. But in May, doctors in Europe and the United States reported a troubling phenomenon: Some children are becoming seriously ill with symptoms that can involve inflammation in the skin, eyes, blood vessels and heart. Parents of children who have these symptoms, or others related to Covid-19, are advised to take them to pediatricians rather than dismissing a rash or fever or abdominal pain as a sign of a typical childhood illness.

The coronavirus seems to be more deadly than seasonal flu and quite contagious. Early estimates of the coronavirus death rate from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, have been about 2 percent, while the seasonal flu, on average, kills about 0.1 percent of people who become infected. But children appear to be more affected by the flu.

By contrast, the 1918 flu had an unusually high fatality rate — greater than 2 percent. Because it was so contagious, that flu killed tens of millions of people.

The coronavirus is thought to spread mainly from one person to another, typically through droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks at close range — even if that person is not showing symptoms, according to the C.D.C. It can also spread through contaminated surfaces, though the C.D.C. has said that this is not thought to be its primary mode of transmission.

Still, if an infected person coughs and a droplet lands on a surface, a person who then touches that surface can become ill. Whether a surface looks dirty or clean is irrelevant.

A study of other coronaviruses found that they remained on metal, glass and plastic for two hours to nine days. But there is good news: The virus that causes Covid-19 is relatively easy to destroy using any simple disinfectant or bleach.

Droplets can sit on the surfaces of latex gloves. Some experts suggest wearing cloth or leather gloves that absorb droplets and are bulky enough to discourage you from touching your face.

About 80 percent of people infected with the new coronavirus have relatively mild or no symptoms. But about 20 percent of people become more seriously ill, and in about 2 percent of patients in China the disease has been fatal. The current best estimate from the C.D.C. is that around 35 percent of people infected are asymptomatic.

The disease can seriously sicken adults of all ages. According to a report of the first recorded cases in the United States, young, previously healthy adults can develop severe symptoms that could require ventilators and other life support. These patients may have a better chance at survival; older, more frail people, or those with underlying health issues, like diabetes or another chronic illness, face the greater likelihood of dying from the virus.

There are two types of coronavirus tests: a viral test, which diagnoses whether you have Covid-19, and an antibody test, which will tell you whether your body has developed antibodies. The existence of antibodies — the protective proteins made in response to an infection — to Covid-19 signifies a previous infection. Many health care providers nationwide offer antibody tests, so check with your doctor.

Keep in mind that antibodies take time to develop, so a lack of antibodies may just mean your body hasn’t had enough time to develop them post-infection.

It’s complicated. We don’t yet know conclusively whether antibodies offer protection against reinfection, or for how long.

A new study suggests that antibodies may last only two to three months, especially in people who never showed symptoms while they were infected.

The conclusion does not necessarily mean that these people can be infected a second time, several experts cautioned. Even low levels of powerful neutralizing antibodies may still be protective, as are the immune system’s T cells and B cells.

There is currently no cure or vaccine for Covid-19.

In May, the drug remdesivir, first antiviral drug to show effectiveness against the coronavirus in human trials, was given Emergency Use Authorization by the United States Food and Drug Administration, allowing physicians to use the drug on patients with confirmed diagnoses of Covid-19. Because the drug is given intravenously, it is restricted to hospital settings, but the American biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences will soon start trials of an inhalable version to get around the hospital limitation.

Still, the drug’s designation does not constitute formal drug approval, and remdesivir’s safety and efficacy are still being investigated in several clinical trials.

As for a vaccine, researchers around the world are developing more than 140 versions. Vaccines typically require years of research and testing before reaching the clinic, but Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said in late June he was “cautiously optimistic” a vaccine would be ready by early 2021.

We understand. The coronavirus has drastically shifted so much about our lives this year. Take a look at The Times’s special section on frequently asked questions and advice. We have answers to common questions on health, money, daily life, politics, science and travel.