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How to tell if your coronavirus symptoms are mild, moderate, or severe

Donna Christiano writer headshot By | Updated on April 27, 2020
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

You’ve probably read that 80% of people who get COVID-19 will have mild coronavirus symptoms. But what exactly does that mean? Is a mild case similar to a respiratory illness like the common cold or the seasonal flu? What separates a mild case from a moderate one? What symptoms make a case severe?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses, but this is a new coronavirus, officially called SARS CoV-2. This novel coronavirus, also called COVID- 19, which first surfaced in Wuhan, China, at the end of last year, appears to have been transmitted to humans from an animal source. Experts are just learning about the different ways it affects people. As cases rise around the world—COVID-19 is now a pandemic—questions abound. 

One thing experts know for sure: It’s a fairly contagious virus that is spread through the airborne (e.g., much smaller than droplets and stays in air) as well as droplets (e.g., the sneezes and coughs) of infected people. This is why handwashing, social distancing, and self-isolation are so important in slowing coronavirus transmission. 

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Prevalence of mild, moderate, and severe COVID-19 cases

Research reported in the online publication Statpearls indicates that the vast majority of COVID-19 cases fall into the least severe category:

  • Mild to moderate: 81%
  • Severe: 14%
  • Critical: 5%

Age seems to be a strong factor in who gets the sickest. In a recent analysis of coronavirus disease 2019 in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that older people have the highest death rate. 

Age group Death rate 
85+ 10%-27%
65-84 years 3%-11%
55-64 years 1%-3%
20-54 years <1%
19 and younger No fatalities reported

 

It’s important to note, however, that while older people are most likely to die from the disease, young people are not immune to COVID-19. The same CDC analysis found that 20% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in this country were between the ages of 20 and 44. 

Coronavirus symptoms: Mild vs. moderate vs. severe

How your body responds to this new coronavirus infection depends on your:

  • Age
  • Immune system
  • General health
  • Any underlying health conditions

Conditions such as diabetes, lung condition or heart disease may make you more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

It’s possible to have the infection and not show any coronavirus symptoms at all. Up to 18% of people infected with the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic, according to research on the passengers exposed during a recent Diamond Princess cruise. Though the World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that some people who are asymptomatic at the time of testing will develop symptoms later. 

Mild symptoms

Most people infected with the virus will have mild respiratory illness symptoms such as nasal congestion, runny nose, and a sore throat. Other common coronavirus symptoms include:

  • Low-grade fever (not more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste and smell

“With a mild case, you might feel as though you have a cold,” says Carl J. Fichtenbaum, MD, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “The symptoms are annoying, but you feel as though you can carry on with most of what you need to do without feeling too impaired.”

New reports indicate that loss of smell or taste may be a sign of coronavirus infection.

Moderate symptoms

  • Fever of about 101-102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Chills, with repeated shaking
  • Deep cough
  • Fatigue and body aches
  • Muscle pain
  • General feeling of being unwell

“These people will have some of the same symptoms as those with a mild case of COVID-19, but the fever may be a little higher, the coughing deeper, and they may feel more rundown,” notes Dr. Fichetenbaum. “They’ll generally feel sicker.”

Severe symptoms

All the common symptoms mentioned above along with:

  • Shortness of breath, even when you’re not exerting yourself
  • Chest discomfort
  • Confusion/unresponsiveness
  • Bluish face/lips (a sign you’re not getting enough oxygen)
  • Possible gastrointestinal issues, like diarrhea or nausea. This is present in up to 10-20% of severe cases.

Breathing issues are a medical emergency. Call your healthcare provider or 911 for immediate guidance. In some people, COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia and lung scarring.

Coronavirus incubation period and recovery time 

The incubation period—the time between when you’re infected with the virus and when symptoms start—is 1 to 14 days, with 5 days being about average, according to the WHO. Mild cases of COVID-19 will run their course in about two weeks. Recovery for those with severe cases can take three to six weeks. 

It’s possible to start out with a mild case and have it turn severe. “The timing of this will depend on each individual’s immune system and underlying health conditions. There have been reports of symptoms developing very rapidly, over the course of hours, and other cases that take days to evolve,” says Libby Richards, Ph.D., RN, CHES, associate professor at the Purdue University School of Nursing. 

There have been cases reported where patients got better and were reinfected with COVID- 19. Therefore, it is essential to follow all the precautions to avoid reinfection if someone recovers from coronavirus infection. 

Coronavirus treatments

While scientists are working hard on developing a vaccine and/or an antiviral medication to combat COVID-19, as of now, there’s no “cure” for the infectious disease. Treatment for mild-to-moderate cases of this coronavirus involves what doctors call supportive care. 

That includes rest, drinking lots of fluids, and taking over-the-counter pain and fever relievers, like Tylenol. More severe cases, especially when there’s difficulty breathing, may need hospitalization. “We’ll want to evaluate these people,” says Dr. Fichtenbaum. “We’ll want to see what their oxygen levels are, if they’re well hydrated, and if they’ll need help breathing with respirators or mechanical ventilators.”

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When to go to the doctor

The CDC advises people to call their healthcare providers if they think they may have been exposed to the coronavirus and also develop a low grade fever, cough, or slight shortness of breath. It’s important to call first so the staff can take measures to safeguard their own health and that of other patients if they want you to come in. 

Not all fevers or coughs will be due to the coronavirus. To help you get a better grasp of whether you might be suffering from COVID-19 or another respiratory illness, the University of Maryland Medical System advises you ask yourself the following:

  • Do you have COVID-19 symptoms?
  • Have you traveled internationally in the last 28 days? Have you recently traveled to a U.S. state with lots of COVID-19 cases? 
  • Have you had close contact with a person known to be infected with COVID-19 (e.g., have you spent extended periods of time with a person with a confirmed case of coronavirus and have you had less than 6 feet separating you)?
  • Are you at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus? For example, are you an older adult, especially one with a chronic disease?

If you’re having any of the symptoms suggesting a severe case of COVID-19, contact your healthcare provider immediately, or dial 911. Tell the person you speak with that you think you may have COVID-19. Put on a face mask, if one’s available, before help arrives or you leave to seek help. Keep at least six feet away from your family members to avoid spread of infection. 

Compare coronavirus symptoms
Mild disease Moderate disease Severe disease
Symptoms Low-grade fever, dry cough, fatigue Fever, deeper cough, fatigue, body aches Fever, deep cough, fatigue, body aches, breathing difficulties, chest discomfort, confusion/unrespon-siveness, bluish lips 
Prevalence 81% of COVID-19 cases 14% of COVID-19 cases 5% of COVID-19 cases
Incubation period 1-14 days 1-14 days 1-14 days
Treatment Rest, fluids, over-the-counter pain and fever reducer Rest, fluids, over-the-counter pain and fever reducer May need hospitalization for IV fluids, oxygen, and help breathing
Recovery 2 weeks 2 weeks 3 to 6 weeks