The Complete COVID-19 Timeline: Day-by-Day Symptoms

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
May 20, 2022
9 mins

You just found out that you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, and your mind is going a mile a minute. You have many questions and concerns, and you aren’t quite sure what symptoms your body might experience in the days and weeks ahead. 

To alleviate some of the stress you might feel after your diagnosis, we’ve created a detailed day-by-day timeline of all the symptoms you might experience while dealing with COVID-19, with tips on how to determine the difference between mild and more severe symptoms that might require professional medical care and treatment. (Being fully vaccinated — including having all recommended booster shots — has proven to be a very effective way to prevent serious illness from COVID-19.) 

While symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of other respiratory illnesses such as the common cold or the flu, there are a few important differences. A wide range of symptoms has been reported by people with COVID-19, but some of the most common are:

     • Fever

     • Cough

     • Sore throat

     • Stuffy or runny nose

     • Shortness of breath

     • Fatigue

     • Muscle or body aches

     • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

     • New or unexplained loss of taste or smell (this symptom is rare with recent COVID-19 variants)

(Learn more about symptoms of the latest COVID-19 variants.) 

Some people also experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Since there are so many symptoms that overlap with those of the common cold and the flu, it’s wise to get a COVID-19 test to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

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Depending on your overall health, you may be at risk for developing serious symptoms and complications after contracting COVID-19. You should seek immediate medical attention if you experience difficulty breathing, chest pain, dizziness, fainting, pain or swelling in a leg, confusion, slurring of speech, pale/blue lips and skin, loss of sensation or strength in an extremity, or an inability to keep fluids down. 

According to the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), vaccines are effective against most variants found in the United States. In the case of Omicron, the vaccine helps protect infected people from severe symptoms, hospitalizations, and death. Children who are five years old or older are now able to receive the vaccine, which will help to prevent the spread. As more variants arise, research will be done to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine against them. 

COVID-19 Symptoms Day-by-Day 

+ Day 1 to 3: Incubation Period

Signs or symptoms of COVID-19 usually start to appear 2 to 14 days after infection. This is known as the incubation period. Early mild symptoms, like excessive coughing, sore throat, fatigue, headache, or fever, should not be ignored. Take a COVID-19 test immediately if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, even if you suspect it may just be allergies. It’s important to note that, like most diseases, COVID-19 affects different people in different ways, and you won’t necessarily experience all of these symptoms at once (or even experience them all). 

It is during the incubation period and up to 10 days after being exposed that an infected person is most likely to transmit COVID-19 to those around them. As soon as you suspect that you might have COVID-19 or that you have been exposed, take necessary precautions to ensure that people around you stay healthy. This includes quarantining until your symptoms have subsided.

If you develop symptoms, you should isolate yourself for five days from when your symptoms began. This means that if your symptoms began on Monday, that’s day zero. Tuesday is day one, and so on — and Saturday (day five) is your last day in isolation — if the following statements are true:

1. Your symptoms are resolved or improving 

2. You haven’t had a fever in the past 24 hours

3. You wear a well-fitting mask (an N95 is recommended) while around people for an additional 5 days (at least). Some medical professionals favor repeat testing, especially for people who may be around high-risk individuals or who may be in situations where transmission risk is elevated.  For testing after five days, an antigen test is recommended; PCR tests may return positive results when a person is no longer infectious (because they may detect “dead” virus in a person’s system). 

If you become severely ill with COVID-19 or have a compromised immune system, you might need to isolate longer. If you have any concerns about your symptoms or how you are recovering, make an appointment to talk with your healthcare provider. (Carbon Health provides both virtual and in-person appointments for your convenience.)

If you tested positive for COVID-19 but never developed symptoms, you should count your five days of isolation from the day you tested. 

Please note: Some medical professionals favor repeat testing, especially if someone is around others, especially those who are at higher risk, and could potentially spread COVID-19 easily to others.  If someone wants to repeat a test after 5 days then antigen testing is likely most appropriate since PCR can remain positive for weeks after someone is no longer infectious but antigen is usually positive only when someone is actively infectious.

Even if you’re feeling better, resist the urge to leave the house before the first five days of quarantine are up. Stocking up on board games, books, and movies to help keep yourself entertained can help you feel less isolated.

+ Day 4 to 6: Symptoms May Worsen

During this time, symptoms might start to worsen for some people, while others might not notice any changes at all. Even if you are not experiencing heightened symptoms, you should continue to quarantine for the recommended amount of time, so you don’t expose others to COVID-19. It is during this stage that some people lose their ability to smell or taste, a cough may worsen, and fever or chills may continue. 

Any worsening of symptoms or development of new symptoms at this stage, especially after a period of slight improvement,  could also be a sign of an acute COVID-19-associated medical complication and should be discussed with a healthcare provider. 

(Learn more about the best ways to treat COVID-19 at home.)

+ Day 7 to 8: Starting toFeeling Better

You’re finally on the road to recovery but you’re not out of the woods yet! Still experiencing symptoms? Continue to quarantine and self-isolate until the symptoms have passed. If your symptoms are worsening, contact a medical professional immediately. 

+ Day 8 to 10: Road to Recovery

Most people are in full recovery mode by this point; however, don’t fill your social calendar up just yet. Give yourself space to take it easy over the next few days and weeks. Your body has just been through a lot. If your symptoms are not going away or if they worsen, reach out to a medical professional for guidance. 

The Importance of Monitoring Symptoms on Days 5 to 10 

It’s important to track your symptoms as soon as you notice them, but be especially aware of how you are feeling during days the second five days of your illness. Why? This is when more serious issues like respiratory complications can start to appear, especially in people older than 50 and people with chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Prolonged or intense shortness of breath can be a sign of severe illness. If you are experiencing this symptom, seek medical attention right away. And even mild breathlessness or shortness of breath can be very unpleasant. Try to avoid panicking, as panic can make this feeling worse. Instead, practice taking slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. This often works best when you’re sitting upright rather than reclining.

You can also open a window or turn down the heat. Feeling hot can make it harder to breathe.

To monitor your health during this crucial time, a healthcare provider may recommend the use of a pulse oximeter to measure your blood oxygen levels.

Treating COVID-19 Symptoms at Home

Most people diagnosed with COVID-19 (including variants such as Omicron) experience mild symptoms that can be taken care of at home, especially if they are vaccinated.

+ How to treat high temperatures

A fever is a sign that your body’s immune system is working hard to fight infection. Many people immediately reach for fever-reducing medication, but the best thing to do if you’re an otherwise healthy adult is let the fever run its course. If your fever is 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees celsius) doctors suggest simply resting and drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

If your temperature rises above that and is causing you discomfort, take acetaminophen, NSAIDs, or aspirin to reduce your fever. (Read the label carefully and take the medicine only as directed.) If you have a high fever (higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit) for three days, contact your doctor. (NSAIDs must be used with caution in people with renal dysfunction, people using anticoagulants, and people with a history of gastrointestinal ulcers. Acetaminophen can be harmful for people with liver dysfunction. If you have questions about fever medications, talk to your healthcare provider.)

+ How to treat a cough

Like a fever, a cough may be annoying, but it is not usually life-threatening. For a cough, many over-the-counter options help to soothe your throat and keep you comfortable so that you can rest and sleep. Over-the-counter cough suppressants and/or decongestants can also help

Cough drops or candies help soothe throat dryness, while some people rely on honey for the same purpose. Honey can be eaten straight from the jar by the teaspoon or stirred into hot water or tea with lemon juice. You can also moisturize the air with a humidifier or take a long, steamy shower.

For more advice on treating COVID-19 at home, read “How to Treat COVID-19 at home: A Complete Shopping Checklist.” 

Approved Medications to Treat COVID-19

Much of the misinformation about COVID-19 stems from discussions about appropriate medications that can treat the virus. For most of the past two years, advice on what to take for COVID-19 has been limited to over-the-counter medications that can treat symptoms, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which are great for reducing fevers and soothing headaches and muscle pain.

However, medical research has advanced, and now there are medications that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized to treat COVID-19. They are:

     • Monoclonal antibody therapy (mAb) — however, most mAbs are now no longer effective due to Omicron mutations (some are still used). 

     • Oral antiviral therapies Paxlovid or molnupravir

     • IV Remdesivir, which is an IV antiviral medication

These treatments are best taken in the first days of symptom onset, and can prevent mild or moderate COVID-19 from becoming severe. (Note that they are primarily recommended for people who have underlying risk factors for developing a severe COVID-19 infection.)

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published. But note that our knowledge and understanding of COVID-19 are developing and changing very rapidly; if you have questions or concerns about COVID-19 precautions, treatments, and vaccinations, please talk to your healthcare provider.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.