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The First Sign You Have a COVID Infection, Say Experts

Doctors warn to watch out for these COVID symptoms.

There have been nearly 50 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 800,000 Americans have died of the virus. New cases are popping up daily and experts are bracing for a winter surge on top flu season. Eat This, Not That! Health talked to medical experts who explain what the symptoms are of COVID and signs you have the infection. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Symptoms Can Vary

Doctor nurse in protective face mask listening to breath with a stethoscope suspecting Coronavirus (COVID-19).

According to LetsGetChecked's Executive Director of Epidemiology, Dr. Gwen Murphy, Ph.D., MPH, "Symptoms and timelines vary from person to person with COVID, so it is not entirely predictable day-by-day. In general, the early days of symptoms usually include a bit of a cough, a fever or headache. Fatigue is common. Some people also experience GI symptoms like diarrhea. Some people have no fever, some lose their sense of taste and smell. Some people never develop more severe symptoms but others start to feel very uncomfortable after a few days of relatively mild symptoms. They may develop fever, chills, coughing, extreme fatigue, and breathlessness. If after a week your symptoms are not improving you should continue monitoring and speak to your doctor." 


Look Out for These 5 Signs

Sick woman with fever checking her temperature with a thermometer at home

"COVID-19 symptoms have seen some variation since the beginning of the pandemic. But, since the beginning five symptoms have remained very prominent- fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, or body aches," Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, MBBS, Ph.D. Professor of Public Health New Mexico State University explains. "Interestingly, many of these symptoms are also some of the most common symptoms seen in survivors of an infection (i.e. persistent symptoms- see this large study from AMA publications. Other frequent symptoms are sore throat, runny nose, chest/nasal congestion, and sometimes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea." 

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Flu vs COVID Symptoms

Young woman sitting alone on her sofa at home and coughing.

Dr. Khubchandani states, "The biggest challenge for the general public and population health comes in this season. With the cold weather, holiday cooking and travel, people need to know that COVID symptoms have a lot of similarity with flu, foodborne illness, and common cold due to other coronaviruses historically seen in the U.S. While flu and foodborne illness in the vast majority of the cases will resolve on their own, they can sometimes require hospitalization. Many may commit the mistake of waiting to get better or trying OTC or home remedies assuming they have seasonal flu or food-borne illness (especially, in case of fever and diarrhea). Before the pandemic, this was ok, but now, I strongly suggest getting a COVID test. It is nearly impossible to find from symptoms what a person could have."

Dr. David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA adds, "When upper respiratory symptoms like cough, runny nose and fever hit, it is very difficult at first to know if you are dealing with a cold, the flu or COVID. There may be hints like loss of taste and smell suggesting covid, high fever and body aches suggesting flu, sore throat and runny nose without fever suggesting a simple cold, but these symptomatic clues are far from certain. And while rapid testing can be very helpful, we all know the limitations posed by false positive and false negative tests. Also, COVID carries the dangerous distinction of being highly transmissible while still asymptomatic, which brings us back to the benefits of social distancing and mask use."

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New Variants

Biotechnology scientist in ppe suit researching DNA in laboratory using microscope. team examining virus evolution using high tech for scientific research of vaccine development against covid19

Dr. Cutler says, "As new variants of COVID arise, like the delta variant now dominant in India and becoming more prevalent in this country, there will be concerns that our immunity due to vaccination or prior infection may not be protective. The replication of the COVID virus inside any infected person could give rise to such a variant. This fact provides an additional imperative for every eligible person to be vaccinated against COVID. And while these new variants may differ somewhat in transmissibility and severity, distinguishing them from older variants can only be done by detailed genetic analysis. The symptoms may be just as variable and difficult to distinguish as cold and flu symptoms."

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Get Vaccinated

Woman with face mask getting vaccinated, coronavirus, covid-19 and vaccination concept.

According to Dr. Cutler, "Now that COVID cases are declining in the United States, especially in states with high vaccination rates, our attention will turn to the upcoming cold and flu season. One obvious lesson from the COVID pandemic was that measures to reduce COVID also markedly reduced other respiratory infections. So what will be the impact as social distancing and mask use drops off?

Well, the obvious prediction is that the incidence of these other infections will increase. After a worldwide drop in influenza cases, and the lowest rate on record in the United States during the pandemic, we should all expect to see more flu in the coming fall and winter. So it will be very important for everyone to get their flu vaccines. And since there was so little flu last year, we really don't know the impact that COVID and influenza might have together. So it remains critically important that as many people as possible get immunized against COVID as well."

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Keep Wearing Masks

Young caucasian woman wearing surgical gloves putting face mask on, protection from spread of Coronavirus

Dr. Cutler says, "So the clear message going forward is to recognize the risks that respiratory infections may carry. Masking and social distancing still carry significant benefits.  Washing hands helps too. If you haven't been vaccinated against COVID and you are eligible, get a COVID vaccine as soon as possible. And when the flu vaccine comes out you should get that too. Remember the old wisdom, 'an ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure.' This is especially true when there is no cure for a cold, the flu or COVID."

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How to Stay Safe Out There

Doctor holding syringe in hospital.

Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather