How Long Does COVID-19 Last? What To Expect if You Contract the Virus

Find out the COVID-19 symptoms to expect if you contract SARS-CoV-2.

If you've been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, you might wonder how long you'll be sick if you contract the virus. Every case is different, but study and data collection has given experts a fairly good idea of what to expect.

In general, it will take about two weeks for symptoms from a mild case of COVID-19 to go away. If you have a more severe case or other medical conditions, it could take months. Some people have long-COVID, where symptoms last four weeks or longer and may even continue after recovery.

Here are the specifics on the symptoms you may be dealing with, when they'll likely strike, and how long it will take until you're fully recovered and can safely emerge from self-isolation.

When Do the First COVID-19 Symptoms Appear?

The authors of a JAMA Network Open article published in December 2021 investigated 95 studies that included 29,776,306 individuals around the world who had been tested for COVID-19. Of the individuals, 0.25% of the individuals tested for COVID-19 were asymptomatic, while 40.50% of tested individuals had confirmed cases of COVID-19. This means that not everyone who gets COVID-19 has symptoms—many infections are mild or asymptomatic.

Yet those who experience symptoms may see them manifest in a variety of ways. Common symptoms include fever and chills, a cough, muscle or body aches, fatigue, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, or a loss of taste and/or smell. Other people with COVID-19 have reported headaches, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that COVID-19 symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Yes, that's a pretty large window. But a March 2021 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases narrowed it down. Researchers analyzed 99 relevant studies published from January 2020 to January 2021 and found that, on average, it takes just over six days for COVID-19 symptoms to hit.

Incubation periods can change with mutations of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The CDC reported some evidence that the Omicron variant is associated with a shorter incubation period than Delta and other strains. Furthermore, incubation periods can also vary from person to person, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus can still be spread during this time.

Regardless of the SARS-CoV-2 variant, any of the symptoms can strike at any time during the course of the illness, from day one to the last days.

How Long Does It Take To Recover?

The COVID-19 recovery period depends on the severity of the illness. If you have a mild case, you can expect to recover within about two weeks. But for more severe cases, it could take months to feel better, and hospitalization might be required.

According to the CDC, older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions, like heart or lung disease or diabetes, may be at risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19. For example, according to the American Lung Association (ALA), a person could experience lung-related complications such as COVID pneumonia, lung abscesses, or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Also, some people may experience long COVID, also known as post-COVID conditions, chronic COVID, and several other similar names, according to the CDC. People who experience long COVID can have new, recurring, or ongoing symptoms four weeks or more after infection and even after recovery. Long COVID could result in conditions such as:

  • Breathing issues
  • Heart problems (e.g., heart palpitations)
  • Kidney damage
  • Long-term loss of taste and smell
  • Neurologic issues (e.g., fatigue, headaches)
  • Cognitive issues (e.g., memory, concentration)
  • Insomnia

Of note, if you experience or feel that you are experiencing long COVID symptoms, you'll want to see a healthcare provider to ensure that the symptoms are not indicative of other serious health issues.

Can You Remain Positive for COVID-19 Even After Symptoms Have Resolved, and How Does That Affect the Course of the Disease?

Whether patients continue to have symptoms or not, sometimes COVID-19 sticks around longer than expected; this is known as viral persistence. Viral persistence affects how long someone is contagious and, therefore, how long they should stay in isolation. Scientists are still trying to figure out why that happens in some patients, how it varies by individual, and exactly how long the virus stays alive inside the body.

"Viral clearance is the disappearance of an infecting virus, either in response to a therapeutic agent or as a result of the body's immune response," Charles Bailey, MD, medical director of infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital and Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, told Health. "This implies recovery from infection and lack of ongoing contagiousness. On the other hand, viral persistence is the continued presence of a virus, usually within specific types of cells, after resolution of symptoms of the acute viral infection."

Viral persistence is seen in HIV/AIDS, chronic hepatitis, chickenpox/shingles and herpes simplex, and Epstein-Barr virus infections. While they are not typically a characteristic of acute respiratory infections such as COVID-19, persistent SARS-CoV-2 infections occur in some people, according to research.

The CDC reports that the likelihood of people having an infectious virus is very low after 10 days from when symptoms start. SARS-CoV-2 RNA can still be detected in upper respiratory specimens for up to three months after the start of infection in people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Additionally, researchers of a November 2020 study published in The Lancet Microbe investigated viral shedding of SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV, and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). They discovered that the duration of viral shedding was up to 83 days in upper respiratory tract samples, up to 59 days in lower respiratory tract samples, up to 126 days in stool samples, and up to 60 days in serum samples.

However, in that same study, the researchers found that live virus was not detected beyond nine days for any of the studies they reviewed. Thus, even though the SARS-CoV-2 virus may still be present, people are usually not infectious because the virus that is still in their system is dead or unable to replicate.

More time may be needed for the virus to clear in people who have severe COVID-19 or are immunocompromised. And while the loss of smell and taste can continue for weeks or months after recovery, people with these symptoms do not need to isolate for longer than recommended for their case. Retesting during the same illness after you have already tested positive is not recommended by the CDC, however. Therefore, unless you need a negative test result for travel, school, work, or other public events, you likely won't know if you are still positive after your symptoms end.

When Can You Safely Go Out in Public?

The biggest risk of going out in public after having COVID-19 is transmitting the virus to others. However, if you follow the guidelines outlined below, you can minimize the dangers.

Getting tested for COVID-19 is recommended for people who have symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19. The CDC also says that you should get tested in the following situations:

  • Five days after known exposure to COVID-19, if you aren't showing any symptoms
  • In certain high-risk settings, if there is a screening testing program, you must follow
  • Before coming into contact with someone who may be considered at high risk for severe COVID-19

Additionally, if you are unsure whether you should get tested, checking your symptoms on the CDC website is a helpful tool you can use to make a decision. However, people who tested positive in the last 90 days and are exposed to the virus again do not need to get retested unless they are showing symptoms.

As of April 2022, the CDC guidelines advise people who were exposed to COVID-19 and are not up to date on vaccines to quarantine for five days. Staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccines means having received the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines and, for people aged 5 years and older, having received a booster as well. Quarantine is unnecessary if you were exposed to COVID-19 and had confirmed COVID-19 within the last 90 days, regardless of your vaccination status.

The CDC guidance also recommends isolating for at least five full days if you test positive. This means staying at home and being separate from others. And if you have to be around others inside your home or in public during the isolation period, you should wear a mask.

As of August 2022, the CDC guidelines offer this general rule: If you think or know you had COVID-19 and are not up to date on vaccinations, you need to stay at home for at least five days, and you should not travel during this time. If you are up to date with COVID-19 vaccines or have had confirmed COVID-19 within the last 90 days, you do not need to stay home unless you develop symptoms. Regardless of vaccination status, everyone should take precautions for 10 days from the onset of symptoms, including wearing a mask if you have to be around others. You also need to be fever-free for 24 hours (without fever-reducing medications), and your other symptoms have to be improving before you can end isolation.

"Practice physical distancing, wear a mask, and wash hands regularly—these are the best practices…," Jorge Vournas, MD, medical director of the Emergency Department at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, California, told Health. "There is no good reason to not be too careful. In addition to the common recommendations, be careful with who you interact with, especially high-risk elderly and those with comorbid conditions," aka, health complications or impaired immunity.

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 CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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