After almost a year, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging within the U.S., and although there’s a vaccine available to help keep the virus in check, it will be a few more months before it’s administered to the general public. This means that there’s still ample time for the coronavirus to wage its war with the population while enough people take the vaccine.
Because COVID-19 will still be circulating in the U.S. for a while and the average daily cases continue to rise, it’s important to understand the day-by-day breakdown of symptoms. Although about 40% of people infected with COVID are asymptomatic (without symptoms), the rest can suffer from a fleeting mild fever and cough to severe, life-threatening symptoms (20% of cases). For those who fall somewhere in-between, COVID-19 symptoms may follow a pattern of progression. The following is a breakdown of how a typical symptomatic COVID-19 infection progresses, obtained from studies published in The Lancet.
It’s essential to know that COVID-19 disease symptoms don’t begin immediately after exposure to the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the first symptoms typically start about four to five days after a person is infected. The first day of symptoms is usually not the first day of infection.
Week 1: Symptoms Begin
Most people (88%) experience fever and fatigue as their first COVID symptoms. On the first day, they may even begin coughing and have aches and pains in their muscles. Less than 10% of people may feel nausea or start to vomit. On days 2-4, the fever and cough remain and may worsen.
On the fifth day, one of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19 appears: difficulty breathing. The risk for shortness of breath increases the older a person is or if there are underlying health conditions.
On day 6, the fever and cough that started on day 1 remain, along with the shortness of breath from day 5. Because of the coughing and difficulty breathing, some people begin to feel a “band” around their chest. This band occurs because their fluid-filled lungs struggle to breathe.
Week 2: Getting Better or Worse
For most people, symptoms start to improve on day 7. For those whose infection status doesn’t improve, however, their symptoms begin to worsen. On or around day 7, individuals get admitted to the hospital due to a lack of oxygen. Their face may even become bluish, indicating that their lungs aren’t processing enough air for the body.
At about day 8, about 15% of people with the coronavirus begin to show ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ARDS occurs when air sacs in the lungs become dense with fluid. This fluid prevents the lungs from taking in enough air for the body. The lack of air leads to oxygen deprivation, which impacts how the rest of the body functions.
On day 10, breathing may worsen, and the patient may require ICU (intensive care unit) treatment. Signs of sepsis may also begin on days 9 and 10. Sepsis, according to the Mayo Clinic, results when the body’s response to an infection throws the chemicals in the blood off balance. This imbalance can lead to organ failure.
For those who recover, the end of the fever (one of the first symptoms to appear) comes on day 12. The cough, however, may still remain persistent. Survivors of severe COVID-19 infections see a turnaround on day 13-14, with breathing becoming more manageable.
Sadly, COVID-19 infections that result in death end at about 18-19 days from the start of the first symptom.