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The U.S. has now been living with the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year and half. And, unfortunately, new cases still continue to skyrocket across the country.
With the Delta variant causing nearly 99 percent of COVID-19 cases in the country right now and daily new cases continuing to be reported in the hundreds of thousands, it’s very clear that the pandemic is not over.
Through all of this, you’ve probably become an armchair expert of sorts on COVID-19. You know the main symptoms and what to do if you develop them (quarantine ASAP). You may even have your own at-home COVID-19 test in your medicine cabinet for the just in case.
But, given that we’ve been dealing with this virus for so long and you can only digest so much information about it, you may not know or be aware of the latest details on certain things, like how long COVID-19 lasts. Of course, if you happen to get sick with virus, it’s going to be something you’re really going to want to know.
There are certain things you can do to protect yourself, of course. (Get vaccinated against COVID-19, for starters, and wear a mask when you’re indoors in public areas where the spread of COVID-19 is moderate or severe.) But the virus is so widespread at this point that even COVID-conscious people are at risk of getting it.
So, arm yourself with COVID-19 prevention techniques, along with a healthy dose of knowledge. Here's what you need to know about COVID-19 symptoms, and how long the virus lasts (and what to do) if you do get sick.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu, but the CDC lists the following as possible COVID-19 symptoms:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
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.
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.
If you're showing any 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 to get tested or to do a home test.
Does it matter what COVID strain you have?
Nope. The CDC has not issued any recommendations to differentiate between how you should act when you have one strain of COVID-19 vs. another. Currently, the Delta variant dominates COVID-19 cases in the U.S., causing about 99 percent of them, per CDC data—and the agency has not released any separate guidelines.
“There’s no data” that suggests the different variants cause a different length of time in symptoms, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
How long is the incubation period of COVID-19?
If you contract the virus, symptoms may appear anywhere between two and 14 days after you contracted it.
“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 COVID-19 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.
How does being vaccinated affect the duration of a COVID infection?
Even when you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s still possible to develop what’s known as a breakthrough infection. Meaning, you still get the virus, despite being vaccinated against it. “No vaccine is 100 percent [effective at preventing disease],” points out William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “At their best, these vaccines are 95 percent effective.”
What the COVID-19 vaccine will overwhelmingly do, though, is help protect you against developing serious complications from the virus and dying of it, he says.
There are a few different things that can happen if you develop a breakthrough infection, Dr. Schaffner says. One is that you may have no symptoms at all. (A CDC study released in May found that, of 10,262 breakthrough infections that happened as of April 30, 2021, 27 percent had no symptoms.)
Another is that you may have symptoms, but they will likely be less severe than people who are unvaccinated will experience, the CDC says.
As for how long your symptoms will last with a breakthrough infection, it’s difficult to say, Dr. Adalja says, given that each person’s immune system and immune response is unique. However, he adds, “vaccine breakthrough cases are generally very transient and mild because the immune system aborts the infection very rapidly.” Meaning, you may have symptoms, but they could only last for a few days.
Who is the most impacted by COVID-19?
As you probably know by now, the virus type can be especially risky for the elderly and immunocompromised, and it has also disproportionately impacted minorities, especially Black Americans, Native Americans and Alaska natives, and people who are Hispanic or Latinx. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that infection rates are higher in these populations compared to white Americans.
The issue doesn't stop at infection rates—these populations are also experiencing more severe symptoms and higher death rates from the virus than non-minority groups. The CDC found that Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at a rate that’s two times greater than that of white people. Mortality rates for Indigenous people, Latinx, and Pacific Islanders also have age-adjusted mortality rates of about two to 2.4 times that of white Americans.
“Many people who are self-described as Black or Native American are in marginalized, under-resourced communities,” says Clyde Yancy, MD, vice dean for diversity and inclusion at Northwestern Medicine. “They’re typically living in more dense housing, have less access to healthy fruits and vegetables, and a high burden of diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.” Many Latinx and Black Americans are also essential workers and are regularly at risk of being exposed to the virus due to their jobs, Dr. Yancy says. Some also many not have access to quality health care, increasing the odds they’ll get even sicker than their counterparts if they contract a severe case of the virus.
When do you stop being contagious?
Generally a person is officially in the clear and can be around others if they meet these criteria:
10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared
24 hours have passed with no fever (without using a fever-reducing med)
Other symptoms of COVID-19 are also improving or are gone
Being completely cleared wouldn’t happen any sooner than 14 days, though, since the virus’ incubation period is two weeks. That is why you are required to quarantine for a full two weeks in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
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