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COVID Symptoms "Most Often" Appear in This Order

Here’s how to tell the difference between COVID and a cold.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Is it COVID or just a bad cold? Research from the University of Southern California shows there is a pattern to COVID-19 symptoms that could help people who might not be sure if they have COVID-19 or the flu. "This order is especially important to know when we have overlapping cycles of illnesses like the flu that coincide with infections of COVID-19," says Peter Kuhn, PhD, one of the study authors and professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, and aerospace and mechanical engineering at USC. "Doctors can determine what steps to take to care for the patient, and they may prevent the patient's condition from worsening." Here is the most common order of symptoms for COVID-19. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

Fever

Woman being sick having flu lying on sofa looking at temperature on thermometer. Sick woman lying in bed with high fever.
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A fever is usually the first sign of COVID-19—but it could be mild for some people. "A fever is one of the common symptoms of COVID-19, but you can be infected with the coronavirus and have a cough or other symptoms with no fever, or a very low-grade one—especially in the first few days," says Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System. "Keep in mind that it is also possible to have the coronavirus with minimal symptoms or even no symptoms at all. People infected with the coronavirus who have no symptoms can still spread the virus to others."

2

Cough

Young woman sitting alone on her sofa at home and coughing.
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A cough is a common early sign of COVID-19, especially when combined with other symptoms.

"If the cough is accompanied by a fever, fatigue and body aches, you may want to consider testing for COVID-19," says Loras Even, DO, UnityPoint Health. "We're especially concerned when a cough worsens, is associated with a fever or causes breathing problems," says Dr. Even. "Patients experiencing these symptoms should come in for an evaluation."

3

Nausea/Vomiting and Diarrhea

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Gastrointestinal symptoms have been an early sign of COVID-19 since day one, although not as well known as symptoms such as cough or fever. "Early on, the CDC list of COVID-19 symptoms did not include gastrointestinal symptoms," says Dr. Jordan Shapiro, assistant professor of medicine – gastroenterology at Baylor. "It became clear after the first few months that there is a subset of COVID-19 patients with non-respiratory symptoms. We now know that subset is about one-third of COVID-19 patients. Some people don't immediately realize that their GI symptoms coincided with their COVID-19 infection, and they may not think the symptoms are related to COVID-19 because they're not respiratory in nature."

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4

Fatigue

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Not only is fatigue an early sign of COVID-19, it's also a sign of Long COVID. "The body's response to infection and injury is complex and covers all body systems," says Bindu Paul, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "When that response is in disarray — even just one aspect of it — it can cause feelings of being tired, brain fog, pain and other symptoms."

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5

What If I Have No Symptoms?

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Just because you don't have the symptoms in this order (or any symptoms at all), that isn't a guarantee you don't have COVID-19. "Symptoms of COVID-19 usually show up two to 14 days after exposure to SARS-CoV-2, but some people who are infected do not develop symptoms or feel ill," says Dr. Maragakis. "When this happens, a person is called asymptomatic. This is why it is so important to wear a face mask and to practice physical distancing and hand hygiene. People can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and not realize it, but still be able to transmit the virus to other people."

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6

How to Stay Safe Out There

Brunette woman wearing a KN95 FPP2 mask.
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Get tested if you feel you have any of these symptoms. Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted 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.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan