Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, according to research and infectious disease experts.
While it may be the sole symptom associated with a COVID-19 infection, there are many illnesses and conditions that cause someone to feel consistently tired and sore.
Fatigue can be a bigger clue into your health status if you start experiencing other common concurrent symptoms as well.
With more than 10 possible symptoms associated with a COVID-19 infection, Americans may be over-aware of how their bodies are feeling this winter. While shortness of breath and a loss of taste and smell were clear signs of an escalating COVID-19 sickness in years past, the spread of the Omicron variant illustrates that more people are experiencing a myriad of breakthrough symptoms that can easily be confused with other seasonal illnesses. Research indicates that fatigue may have been overlooked by most, as it was found to be one of the most common symptoms for COVID-19 infections — earlier figures placed fatigue as a primary symptom within 62% of COVID-19 cases.
Understanding what feeling fatigued feels like, or any side effects of the condition, can be tricky for most, explains Sachin Nagrani, M.D., an infectious disease expert and medical director at digital healthcare provider Heal. "Fatigue is defined as extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness," he explains, adding, "It can be caused by a very wide variety of conditions."
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Experts have established that Omicron-fueled COVID-19 cases are more commonly presenting symptoms related to upper-respiratory issues — things like sore throats and even nausea, which can be hard enough to discern on their own. Anyone facing a bout of unexpected fatigue may be wondering if they've fallen ill due to a breakthrough case of COVID-19, Dr. Nagrani says, but often forget to consider other aspects at play.
"Fatigue is what we call a non-specific symptom, so it's difficult to distinguish a cause — including COVID-19 — without more information," he explains. "[It's] why being evaluated by your primary care doctor is recommended if you have persistent fatigue."
Read on if you're wondering if the unexplained fatigue you are experiencing could be due to COVID-19 and how to tell it apart from other root causes.
What are common symptoms of COVID-19?
There are more than a fair share of side effects and symptoms brought on by COVID-19 infections, with officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spotlighting 11 symptoms in total. Most experts agree that some of the symptoms associated with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis) can also be an issue for other seasonal illnesses and influenza, particularly this winter.
But Dr. Nagrani and other healthcare providers say that experiencing more than one of the symptoms concurrently, in any order or type of succession, is a strong indicator that you may be sick and should get tested immediately.
The full list of potential COVID-19 symptoms as noted by CDC officials:
Fever and body chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Congestion or runny nose
Fatigue, or muscle and body aches
CDC guidance indicates that these symptoms may appear in any order or frequency between two to 14 days after someone is first infected — or, in some cases, none of these symptoms present at all, leading to asymptomatic spread. And because there is a wider pool of root causes for unexplained fatigue, a COVID-19 test may be the only way to determine if you're contagious to others.
"Many symptoms caused by viruses… can overlap," Dr. Nagrani adds, naming issues like cough, fever, nasal congestion, headache and fatigue specifically. "SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, sometimes also causes loss of smell or taste [concurrently] — which is not commonly caused by a cold or the flu."
Is fatigue a sign of COVID-19 infections?
It may be unexpected, but it's entirely possible for fatigue to be the only symptom affecting someone who is experiencing a COVID-19 infection, likely a breakthrough case. Because average Americans have a hard time classifying fatigue and the root of their tiredness, they may miss other more subtle symptoms that would provide more context to a burgeoning COVID-19 illness.
A 2021 scholarly article indicated that fatigue is one of the three most common symptoms associated with COVID-19, Dr. Nagrani stresses. But unless you have a conversation with your healthcare provider, pinpointing your lack of energy or body's consistent soreness can be difficult.
"As an acute symptom, while new fatigue could be an early marker of a COVID-19 infection, the fatigue could easily be due to another cause," he says. "It's also important to remember that many cases of COVID-19 have no symptoms at all, which is one reason it has continued to spread so easily."
The easiest way to determine if your fatigue is caused by coronavirus would be to get tested, especially if you are experiencing new, additional symptoms at the same time as feeling wiped out. If you can't explain why you feel tired (no matter how much you sleep!) and the sensation doesn't fade, visiting a primary doctor can help determine what's plaguing you — even if it isn't a COVID-19 infection as you may suspect.
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