How Long Does COVID-19 Last? What To Expect
COVID-19 affects individuals in different ways. Below, we take a closer look at how long this virus could linger and what to look out for.
At this point, it’s safe to say the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you or someone you know. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there have been over 96 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. alone.
When Do COVID-19 Symptoms Appear?
First, it is important to note that not everyone who gets the SARS-CoV-2 infection presents symptoms — these patients are asymptomatic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 symptoms could appear anywhere from two to 14 days after initial exposure to the virus. That is quite a large period.
However, a recent meta-analysis on COVID-19’s incubation period showed that COVID-19 symptoms take roughly six days to show on average.
Incubation periods of COVID-19 for new mutations like the Omicron variant have shown to be shorter, at around three days, than the Delta variant and other SARS-CoV-2 strains.
What Are Common COVID Symptoms?
The severity of COVID-19 symptoms varies from individual. Symptoms can range from non-existence to severe — most experience mild symptoms similar to the common cold.
Some people recover fine on their own without lingering effects, while some immunocompromised may require hospitalization.
Common symptoms of COVID-19 include, but are not limited to:
- Sore throat
- Fever or chills
- Cough and sneezing
- Muscle or body aches
- A new loss of taste or taste
- Nausea or vomiting
- Nasal congestion or runny nose
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
When Should You Get Tested for COVID?
According to the CDC, you should get tested for COVID-19 whenever you experience symptoms. If you know you were exposed to the virus and didn’t have symptoms, they recommend waiting five full days after exposure to test. Testing too early could result in a false negative test result.
Rapid antigen and PCR tests are the two most popular forms of COVID-19 diagnostic testing. These are typically done at home or in a doctor’s office or health clinic.
At-home over-the-counter (OTC) diagnostic tests received the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency use authorization. These at-home test kits allow individuals to collect their own samples and read the results in real-time.
Rapid Antigen Test
Rapid antigen tests or rapid tests are the simplest forms of COVID-19 testing. The individual can obtain samples with sterile nasal swabs in the comfort of home.
The rapid test searches for traces of protein from the coronavirus disease and uses a reagent to mimic the immune system's antibodies as it attaches to COVID-19 antigens.
Results show within 15 to 30 minutes. Rapid tests do require a high viral load within the body before showing a positive result. So, timing is key. Rapid tests should be taken when you’re showing symptoms of COVID.
One of the first diagnostic tests created to detect COVID-19 was the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) or molecular test. While the antigen test acts as antibodies, the PCR test looks for genetic material with traces of the virus.
The PCR test amplifies RNA (ribonucleic acid) samples to detect small traces of the virus using special equipment and chemicals. The PCR test is highly accurate and has a low rate of false negatives.
This testing is done in a laboratory, so the turnaround time for test results is typically one to seven days. It is best to test as soon as COVID symptoms arise because the PCR test is highly sensitive.
When Should You See a Doctor for COVID?
To help stop the spread of the virus and to ensure the safety of those considered at higher risk for infectious disease, the CDC recommends the following steps when you’re sick and test positive for COVID-19:
- Stay at home for at least five days and avoid close contact with others in your home.
- Stay well-rested and hydrated. Take OTC pain relievers as needed.
- Avoid travel on public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis when possible.
Per the CDC, these steps apply whether the infected person is vaccinated or unvaccinated. They also advise individuals to monitor symptoms and stay in close contact with their doctor. If symptoms worsen, they can offer advice on treatment plans.
This is very important for older adults with health problems who are considered at high risk for serious illness. COVID-19 can exacerbate certain health conditions, leading to severe illness and severe COVID-19 symptoms.
How Long Do COVID-19 Symptoms Last?
There is not a definitive timetable for the length of COVID-19 symptoms. In general, most recover within two weeks. A lingering cough could hang around longer.
Cases involving more severe strains may last much longer. Long COVID may linger for as long as two to four weeks after diagnosis.
How Long Are You Contagious With COVID-19?
Studies have shown the highest level of infectivity of COVID-19 is typically around two days before the onset of symptoms to three days after symptom onset. That is a large window.
The same research suggests that most people are no longer contagious five to six days after symptoms appear. Some individuals may continue to be contagious for longer.
Are you still contagious if you test positive without symptoms? Yes. It is possible to spread COVID-19 even when you’re asymptomatic.
Should my contacts be tested for COVID-19? It is best to tell them if you’ve been in close contact with others during the infection incubation period. In most cases, it is wise for close contacts to get tested if you’ve tested positive.
When Should I Get Retested?
Per the CDC guidelines, if you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and have followed isolation instructions, retesting is not necessary.
However, post-COVID reinfection and breakout infections among those who’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine are possible with new variants. So, if you redevelop symptoms after a previous infection, retesting is advised.
When Can I Go Back Out in Public?
The CDC has issued recommendations for ending isolation and returning to the public after COVID-19 infection. These protocols depend on the severity of symptoms and health status.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of the duration of COVID-19, infection prevention practices are advised for all persons.
This includes masking up, physically distancing from others when appropriate, using good hand washing hygiene, and using hand sanitizers.