It's actually a pretty common symptom of any viral infection.

By Korin Miller
November 12, 2020
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Feeling rundown here and there is a part of life. But, when you feel tired in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it's only natural to wonder if your fatigue could be caused by COVID-19.

Here's the deal: While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists fatigue as an official symptom of COVID-19, having fatigue doesn't automatically mean that you have the virus, Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health. "It's kind of a nondescript symptom," he points out.

How can you tell if your tiredness is due to COVID-19 or something else entirely? Doctors weigh in.

First, how common is fatigue with COVID-19?

It's pretty common, Dr. Adalja says—but feeling wiped out is common with most viral illnesses.

"It has to do with substances called cytokines that the immune system produces when under attack," Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health. Those cytokines signal to your body that it's time to go to work and fight off an infection, but the aftermath can make you feel tired. After all, your body is focusing its energy on fighting off an invader, even if you can't see it.

Regarding fatigue due to COVID-19 specifically, a February report published by the World Health Organization analyzing 55,924 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China, found that fatigue was the third most common symptom of COVID-19 with 38.1% of people reporting the symptom. The only two more common symptoms, according to that report, were fever (87.9%) and dry cough (67.7%).

How can you know if your fatigue is a symptom of COVID-19?

This can be a little tricky. In general, Dr. Adalja says that you should have other symptoms as well. "Usually you'll have some symptoms, like muscle aches, pains, or a sore throat, even if it's minor," he says. "It's usually not just fatigue in and of itself."

That doesn't mean you can't have COVID-19 and only experience fatigue as a symptom—it's just not common.

To try to figure out what's going on, Dr. Adalja recommends looking at your fatigue as part of the bigger picture. "You have to think about why you're fatigued," he says. "Is it because you ran a marathon or were up late, studying for a test? Try to see if you have an easy explanation. I've been fatigued since January, but there's an explanation for that."

And, of course, calling your doctor is always an option. They may want to test you for COVID-19 or do a physical exam, given that a wide range of health issues and lifestyle factors can cause fatigue.

How do you treat fatigue from COVID-19?

There's only so much you can do since this is part of having the virus—or any virus. In fact, Dr. Watkins says, you really just have to wait this one out.

Still, you can do yourself a solid and take it easy during this time, he says. So, take a pass on exercising heavily and pushing yourself too much—your body is clearly signaling to you that you need to rest.

Unfortunately, the fatigue from COVID-19 can linger: Results of a pre-print study released in September found that 52% of 128 COVID-positive patients had "persistent fatigue" weeks after they were diagnosed. That was true whether they had a minor or more severe case of the virus.

Overall, if you're struggling with fatigue that won't quit, talk to your doctor. They should be able to help guide you on next steps.

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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