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How Do I Know if I Have COVID-19 Symptoms?


Editor's Note: This story was updated on Oct. 6, 2021. 

Even though COVID-19 symptoms such as cough, fever, fatigue and shortness of breath have been widely reported in the media, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish by symptoms alone whether you’ve developed a simple cold, the flu or COVID-19.

So how can you tell if your symptoms might be related to coronavirus?

"The only distinguishing symptom that suggests COVID-19 as opposed to the flu or a cold is loss of taste and smell," said infectious disease specialist Soniya Gandhi, MD, vice president of Medical Affairs and associate chief medical officer at Cedars-Sinai.

COVID-19 can cause a wide range of mild-to-severe symptoms that appear two to14 days after exposure to the virus. In addition to fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle aches, sore throat and congestion, some patients with COVID-19 also have experienced gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea and nausea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Currently, the delta variant of the virus is the dominant variant circulating in the U.S. While there appears to be only a minor difference in symptoms between the delta variant and the original COVID-19 strain, headaches, sore throat, runny nose and fever are more prominent, while cough and loss of smell are less common, Gandhi said.

So, what should you do if you suspect that you have COVID-19?

Gandhi prescribes getting tested, even if you are fully vaccinated and experiencing only mild symptoms. It is rare, but breakthrough cases can occur. If your illness turns out to be the flu, you have a short 48-hour window to take an antiviral medication. And if it’s COVID-19, you should self-quarantine, and you might qualify for monoclonal antibody infusions, which can mitigate symptoms.

"The most important thing to do is to get tested, to stay home and to quarantine for the appropriate duration of time depending on the diagnosis and until your symptoms have significantly improved,” Gandhi said.

If your symptoms are manageable—low-grade fever, cough, chest congestion and mild fatigue—she recommends resting at home, drinking lots of water and taking fever-reducing medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, for symptom relief.

If you experience worsening symptoms, such as labored breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, persistent high fever, confusion, pale or blue-colored lips or nails, or severe weakness, seek emergency medical care immediately.

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Going to the Doctor During COVID-19: What You Need to Know