Coronavirus symptoms, and what to do if you have them

A man wearing a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of the new coronavirus gets his temperature taken at a small medical center that specializes in respiratory illnesses in Lima, Peru.
A man wearing a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of the new coronavirus gets his temperature taken at a small medical center that specializes in respiratory illnesses in Lima, Peru.Martin Mejia/Associated Press

This story was last updated in March. Readers can find the latest list of coronavirus symptoms from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here.

With the coronavirus killing people and disrupting daily life in the United States and across the world, many people are asking how to identify the symptoms and what to do if they become ill. Here are some answers:

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the initial symptoms are typical of other common illnesses: fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

The symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus, according to the CDC.


The illness, known officially as COVID-19, can be mild to severe.

Older adults, 65 and older, and people who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions, like heart or lung disease or diabetes, are at higher risk for getting very sick from the illness, the CDC says.

The CDC says other people who may be at risk are: people with HIV, people with asthma, and pregnant women. Recent reports have also noted that younger people can become very ill.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus, and how is it treated?
The US Centers for Disease Control says little is known about the virus, but it still has some tentative answers.

How do you know it’s not just allergies?

With spring arriving after a warm winter, plenty of people will soon be sniffling, red-eyed, blowing their noses, and sneezing due to seasonal allergies.

But they won’t have fevers.

“What really distinguishes allergies from viral infections is the absence of fever,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. People who suffer from seasonal allergies typically know the difference, he noted.

How do I know it’s not just the cold or the flu?

Colds and the flu, which are both caused by viruses, are harder to differentiate from the coronavirus, Kuritzkes said.


A cold can bring on a sore throat, runny nose, fever, and nasal congestion, though it’s not usually associated — at least early on — with a phlegm-producing cough, he said.

The flu has a “pretty abrupt onset," with a high fever, headaches, muscle aches, generally feeling terrible, and also possibly a cough. It’s not usually preceded by a sore throat and it may or may not involve nasal congestion, he said.

The bottom line: A severe cold, the flu, and a mild case of coronavirus “could be difficult to distinguish” from each other, Kuritzkes said.

What if you have symptoms?

If you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop a fever and symptoms such as cough or difficulty breathing, call your doctor for medical advice, the CDC advises.

The CDC offers a “self-checker” on its website to advise you if you might be sick.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health says you can also call 2-1-1 to ask questions about prevention, symptoms, and treatment.

If you’re in a high-risk group, err on the side of caution and call early, even if your illness is mild, CDC says.

The CDC also says that if your symptoms escalate, you should get medical attention immediately. Emergency warning signs include but are not limited to: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face.

People should “stay vigilant” about whether they are developing fever or other symptoms, Kuritzkes said.


Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com