What Does It Mean to Have 'Mild' COVID-19 Symptoms?

Here's what separates mild COVID-19 from a more serious infection.

Since the pandemic began, people have talked about having "mild" symptoms of COVID-19. With breakthrough cases of the virus becoming more common since more people have gotten vaccinated—and breakthrough cases tend to result in milder symptoms—there is often talk of mild COVID-19, including on social media. But everyone seems to have a different definition of what they consider mild.

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Here's a sampling of what people said on Twitter about mild COVID-19 back in mid-2021:

So what does it mean to have mild COVID-19, what are the signs that you have mild COVID-19, and can a mild case progress to one that's more serious? Infectious disease experts weigh in.

What Is Mild COVID-19, Exactly?

It's important to get this out of the way up front: There's no clinical definition of mild COVID-19, so a lot of this is very subjective and is left up to interpretation. In general, though, doctors seem to agree that a mild case of COVID-19 is when it doesn't land you in the hospital.

"It's a respiratory illness that's not severe enough to put you in the hospital," William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Health. "It varies from having almost no symptoms to a heavy cold to having to go to bed for a few days."

There's a pretty wide range with mild COVID-19, spanning from the asymptomatic to more intense symptoms, Lewis Nelson, MD, professor and chair of emergency medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Health. "Mild illness can occur in vaccinated or unvaccinated people, though it is the prominent form of illness in the vaccinated population," said Dr. Nelson. "These patients rarely go on to develop moderate or severe illness."

What Are the Symptoms of Mild COVID-19?

Technically, you can have any of the typical symptoms of COVID-19 with mild COVID, said Dr. Schaffner. These include, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

"There are no specific criteria to differentiate the various levels of illness, and even mild illness in someone with underlying diseases can prove consequential," noted Dr. Nelson.

How Long Does Mild COVID Last?

Again, it can vary. Some people with mild COVID-19 may be asymptomatic, or they develop a few symptoms that clear up quickly. Others can be uncomfortable for days. "Mild illness typically lasts three to seven days," said Dr. Nelson.

What Are the Signs Your Mild COVID-19 Is Getting More Serious?

The CDC specifically warns that you should seek medical attention immediately if you develop any of these symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake up or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

"Most patients feel well if they stay fed and hydrated, using over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen as needed," said Dr. Nelson.

What to Do If You Develop Mild COVID-19

Even though your symptoms are mild, experts said it's still a good idea to check in with your doctor. "Your doctor can give you personalized advice on what to do during your illness", said Dr. Schaffner.

Some of this personalized advice may include your doctor prescribing monoclonal antibodies or antiviral medication. Both have been shown to reduce the chances of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19.

Whether you feel your symptoms are mild or not, if you have an underlying health condition, definitely check in with your doctor, agreed Dr. Nelson. "Even mild COVID can lead to complications," noted Dr. Nelson.

Some of these underlying health conditions (what you might hear referred to as comorbidities) that are associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 include smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, heart conditions, cancer, diabetes, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease, substance use disorders, and certain mental health disorders.

Overall, experts also stress the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19. "Vaccination prevents most people who develop COVID from progressing beyond the mild stages, and markedly reduces hospitalization and death," explained Dr. Nelson. "It is imperfect and people can still develop concerning COVID, but the risk of doing so is significantly lower as is the complication rate if it develops."

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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