At this point, you probably have the COVID basics down and know how to lower your risk of getting sick and all about testing options. But the disease has changed since it first turned the world upside down in 2020 and, with it, it’s only natural to have questions now like, “how long does COVID last these days?” After all, we’ve faced several forms of this virus, from Delta to Omicron.
Especially if you’ve been diagnosed with COVID, it’s understandable to wonder how much longer this virus will take for your body to kick it. Will you feel better quickly or can you expect this to drag out?
Unfortunately, there’s no set time frame on when you’ll get better, and some people struggle with the side effects of "long COVID." There is still plenty of research to be done on these cases, but in the meantime, taking expert advice is crucial.
Here’s what doctors have to say about how soon most people can expect to feel better with COVID, plus which symptoms seem to linger and what you can do to recover faster.
Meet the experts: Ramprasad Gopalan, MD, is a Wellington, Florida-based infectious disease physician. Eudene Harry, MD, is an emergency medicine physician in Orlando, Florida. Amesh A. Adalja, MD, is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Thomas Russo, MD, is a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. William Schaffner, MD, is an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
The main symptoms of COVID-19 haven’t really changed over time. The CDC lists the following as possible signs of the virus:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
“Symptoms haven’t really changed much over time except, as a population, we’ve built more immunity from vaccination and prior infection,” says Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. “As a result, people are often having more cold-like illnesses and upper respiratory tract infections seem to be more common than lower respiratory infections.” There also seems to be less people losing their sense of taste and smell when they get COVID, Dr. Russo says.
Unfortunately, severe cases of COVID-19 still happen, Dr. Russo says. With a severe case of COVID-19, a person may experience weakness, lethargy, and fever for a prolonged period of time. However, in some cases, a person might not even show symptoms of having the virus but could still test positive if they’ve been exposed to it.
Which symptoms generally last the longest?
For a typical case of COVID, the symptom that tends to last the longest is fatigue, says Ramprasad Gopalan, MD, an infectious disease specialist. Dr. Russo agrees. “It’s almost a unique COVID-like fatigue that occurs.”
But it’s also not uncommon to have a cough that lingers, says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “I’ve spoken with a number of people who have a cough that is very annoying and may even awaken them at night when they were sleeping,” he says. “This can go on for two to three weeks.”
This differs greatly from those who are experiencing so-called "long COVID," who typically have two or more symptoms including fatigue, dyspnea (or labored breathing), chest pain or tightness, and cough.
Does it matter what COVID strain you have?
The CDC has not issued any recommendations to differentiate between how you should act when you have one strain of COVID-19 vs. another.
“There’s no data” that suggests the different variants cause a different length of time in symptoms, says Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
How long does COVID-19 last?
How long the symptoms last depends on the severity of the case. With more mild cases (meaning that symptoms are similar to the common cold or flu), people tend to get better on their own after a few days, Dr. Russo says. “Some people say they feel great after three days, but it's not uncommon to have symptoms for two, three, and four weeks afterward,” he says. “The fatigue in particular can be quite prolonged.”
If you’re considered high risk for more severe forms of COVID-19, Dr. Russo recommends contacting your doctor ASAP after you get a positive test result. You may be eligible for an antiviral medication like Paxlovid, which can shorten the course of your illness and lower the risk you’ll get seriously sick.
In severe cases, the virus may travel to the lungs and cause pneumonia, and the symptoms may last longer. “These individuals are usually hospitalized and treated aggressively and symptomatically until symptoms resolve,” says Eudene Harry, MD, an emergency medicine physician in Orlando, Florida. In those cases, she says, doctors will run a CT scan of the lungs to see how the virus is affecting the lungs, and to determine whether or not it’s improving or getting worse.
What about long COVID?
Nearly one in every five American adults who have had COVID experience long COVID, according to a June, 2022 report from the CDC.
Dr. Gopalan explains that the length of long COVID depends on the health status of the person before they got infected, the severity of their illness, and the spectrum of symptoms they experience.
"For moderate to severe disease, expect up to three months or longer. There is a diverse range of recovery based on multiple factors," says Dr. Gopalan. "Patients who were admitted to the intensive care unit have shown persistent symptoms lasting up to one year."
What should I do if my symptoms won’t go away?
You should be going to see your primary care provider for blood work and a visit if you're post COVID. But if your COVID symptoms persist and are affecting your daily living activity, Dr. Gopalan recommends going in for routine evaluations by your physician.
And before you consider going on any special diets or drinking specialized juices, just know that the goal is to maintain habits that benefit your overall health. "Although no specific recommendations for an anti-inflammatory or balanced diet exist for COVID patients, we know that the patient’s overall health impacts the severity and duration of illness, so any measures to improve health are beneficial," says Dr. Gopalan.
Alternatively, those experiencing or recovering from long COVID may need inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation or exercise as tolerated or under the care of a physician. And similar to routine cautionary measures, minimizing exposure to sick patients and receiving the updated COVID-19 vaccine will be beneficial long-term.
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