What Are COVID-19 Signs and Symptoms in People of All Ages?

COVID-19 infection can appear in a number of ways.

Waves of COVID-19 have risen and fallen since the virus first appeared in the US. COVID-19 has presented in several ways, including in cases where there were no symptoms.

Yet, it's important to know what COVID-19 looks like when symptoms do occur. But between the presence of different COVID-19 variants and the ability to get vaccinated against the illness, you may be wondering if the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 have changed over time.

Here's information on the COVID-19 symptoms to watch out for, how they look for people of all ages, how COVID-19 can progress, and more.

Sick attractive woman lying in bed feeling unwell with headache sore nose high temperature feeling fatigue and restless not being able to go to work in health care concept.
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What Are the Symptoms of COVID-19?

Three symptoms—fever, cough, and shortness of breath—were initially recognized as core signs of COVID-19, and they remain among the list of things many people will experience over the course of the disease. As of October 2022, the CDC notes that possible COVID-19 symptoms also include:

The CDC's rundown of signs to watch for doesn't list every possible symptom. Although less common, COVID-19 can affect your skin, for example. COVID toes and fingers are among the different types of rashes that have been associated with the infection.

Remember that the signs of this illness can be quite diverse. In addition, how someone presents with COVID-19 may depend on the severity of the disease.

How Might COVID-19 Look?

On symptoms alone, COVID-19 can look a lot like the flu. Common flu symptoms include:

  • Fever (or feeling feverish or having chills)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Shortness of breath is more common in people hospitalized with COVID-19. One article noted that breathlessness occurred in 92% of hospitalized patients in intensive care units (ICUs) compared to 37% of patients in non-ICUs.

Complaints of fatigue, headache, and muscle pain are more common among people with milder illness from COVID-19 infection and who don't require hospitalization. Symptoms like sore throat and runny nose or nasal congestion may be noticeable indicators in people with milder sickness.

Keep in mind that many people walk around not knowing they have COVID-19 because their symptoms are extremely mild, they think they have a cold, flu, or allergies, or they have no symptoms at all—in other words, they're asymptomatic.

If you've been vaccinated but experience a "breakthrough" infection, your symptoms are likely to be mild, if you have symptoms at all.

A CDC report noted that, among 469 COVID-19 cases, 347 individuals were fully vaccinated, and of those, 274 reported signs and symptoms—mostly cough, headache, sore throat, muscle pain, and fever.

What COVID-19 Looks Like in Older Adults

While fever, cough, and shortness of breath may be typical, older adults can present with fewer of the other common COVID-19 symptoms, like loss of smell, nausea, and diarrhea. Still, many older adults have "atypical" presentations when it comes to COVID-19 infections.

Researchers reviewed inpatient medical records for nearly 5,000 adults ages 65 and older who were admitted to 11 New York-area hospitals during March and April 2020. More than a third of the group presented with "atypical" symptoms, such as functional decline and altered mental status.

Other unexpected COVID-19 symptoms in older adults have included:

  • Unexplained hypoxia: Low oxygen levels in body tissues
  • Tachycardia: Rapid heart rate, usually above 100 beats per minute
  • Tachypnea: Rapid breathing

What COVID-19 Looks Like in Children

Kids can have symptoms similar to adults, but most have mild symptoms. Those symptoms might include:

  • Fever and cough (most common)
  • Sore throat
  • Rhinorrhea (runny nose)
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

It's also important to note that symptoms can look like other illnesses in children. Additionally, children can also be asymptomatic and show no symptoms of COVID-19 infection but may also be at risk for severe illness if they have other health conditions (e.g., obesity, diabetes, lung disorders).

How Does COVID-19 Progress?

The CDC explains that symptoms appear to arise in as few as two days after exposure to the virus or as long as 14 days. This estimated time frame is similar to the incubation period of SARS and MERS, which are also types of coronaviruses.

However, the progression of COVID-19 varies widely. As noted, some people initially have very mild symptoms, like headache or low-grade fever, while others experience no symptoms at all.

Additionally, some individuals are at high risk for developing severe sickness from a COVID-19 infection, like those who are older or have other health conditions (including conditions such as pregnancy, cancer, or a weakened immune system).

Possible Complications from Severe COVID-19 Illness

Individuals who are at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 may be more likely to experience:

  • Hospitalization
  • Intensive care stays
  • The need for a ventilator for breathing

There's also an increased risk of death for those who have one or more health conditions that may lead to severe sickness due to COVID-19.

If you think you've been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing fever or other symptoms, such as cough or difficulty breathing, get medical attention. In addition, a person who is experiencing any of the following symptoms should seek immediate medical care:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • New confusion
  • Trouble waking or staying awake
  • Bluish, gray, or pale lips or face

How Can You Protect Yourself From COVID-19?

The CDC recommends that people get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters as soon as possible and stay up to date on those shots. As of November 2022, vaccines are available for individuals aged 6 months and older.

In addition, the vaccines authorized for use in the US can help protect you from getting seriously ill from COVID-19.

Still, while vaccination remains the number one means of controlling the spread of COVID-19, additional prevention strategies are needed to reduce transmission as well.

For example, people are urged to mask up based on the COVID-19 community level they are in, if they are sick, or caring for someone who is sick with COVID-29. Masking is particularly important if you have a weakened immune system or if you have people in your household at increased risk for severe disease.

Additionally, other preventative measures include actions such as:

  • Moving indoor activities outdoors when possible
  • Spending more time outdoors in general
  • Making sure indoor areas are well ventilated
  • Increasing space and distance between yourself and others
  • Getting tested for COVID-19 if you've been exposed to it
  • Isolating with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infections
  • Avoiding contact with others who may have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infections
  • Getting treated for COVID-19—especially if you are at high risk of severe illness

A Quick Review

There are a number of COVID-19 symptoms such as coughing, fever, nausea, shortness of breath, and a runny nose. However, not every person will have those symptoms or experience them the same way. Signs of COVID-19 can especially look different in older adults and children.

Additionally, illness from COVID-19 may range from asymptomatic to very severe. No matter how severe the illness, you'll want to seek medical attention to get the treatment that will work best for your case.

COVID-19 Disclaimer: The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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