COVID-19 is a disease caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, which was identified in 2019. Coronaviruses mutate (change) into new and different variants. However, they remain infectious to people and some animals. The infection spreads through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, and even talking.
SARS-CoV-2, like other virus mutations, behave and present symptoms differently from the original virus strain. This includes the Delta, Omicron, and JN.1 variants. These variants can be transmitted between people more easily, produce different symptoms, and cause severe disease.
In early 2024, the World Health Organization (WHO) said COVID-19 remains a pandemic but is in a different phase. Additionally, many factors can impact COVID-19 diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes. This includes poverty, physical environment (e.g., smoke exposure, unhoused), and race or ethnicity.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
COVID-19 symptoms range from mild to severe. It takes 2-14 days after exposure for symptoms to develop. Symptoms can differ slightly, based on the variant, but may include some or all of the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Repeated shaking with chills
- Muscle pain or aches
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
- Runny nose and/or congestion
- Nausea and vomiting
You may never develop symptoms after being exposed to COVID-19, which is referred to as being asymptomatic. But you can still spread the virus to others without symptoms.
What causes a COVID-19 infection?
The most common way to get COVID-19 is by inhaling respiratory droplets in the air. When a person with COVID-19 breathes, coughs, or sneezes, tiny droplets leave their mouth and nose and go into the air. You can’t see these droplets. If you’re within 6 feet of that person, you may breathe in those droplets. You won’t know you’ve done it. But you may get the germs that cause COVID-19 in your body.
COVID-19 also can be shared if you touch a surface an infected person has touched. Some examples include door handles, elevator buttons and shopping carts. The germs can get into your body if you then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
How is COVID-19 diagnosed?
If you believe you have COVID-19, the first step is to get a test. You can test at home. If you cannot afford to purchase an at-home test at your local retail store, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will provide residential households in the U.S. with four, free at-home tests from the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
In general, testing availability may differ depending on where you live. There are some no-cost testing centers. Check your local health department to see what locations near you are doing testing and if there is a fee to test. This may include hospitals and pharmacies that offer drive-thru testing during high COVID-19 infection periods in your local community. This will allow you to stay in your car to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19. Depending on the location, someone may approach your car to collect a sample, or they may ask you to collect it yourself. Samples for COVID-19 viral tests are collected through nasal swabs. Depending on where you get your test, you may get your results the same day or you may have to wait a few days. If you test at home, be sure to follow the instructions to help insure accurate test results. Find out more about COVID-19 testing.
Delays in testing may also delay seeking care and treatment (when sick) as well as delays in self-isolation that could reduce the spread of the virus to others.
If you have COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends isolating for five days. Day one is the first day you noticed symptoms. While isolating in a home you share with others, you should wear a mask, sleep in a separate area of the house, use a separate bathroom and generally avoid contact with others in your home. If you had no symptoms, but tested positive, you can end isolation after five days. If you did have symptoms, you can end your isolation based on how serious your COVID-19 symptoms were. Loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months after recovery but does not extend isolation time.
It’s also important to remember that even if you get a negative test, you may still need to self-isolate if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19. This is because it can take time after exposure for your sample to show a COVID-19 infection.
Keep in mind that local officials may determine quarantine requirements for different states or counties. Reducing the length of quarantine may not be an option in all areas. If you need to quarantine, you should follow any local requirements and recommendations.
Can COVID-19 be prevented or avoided?
Getting the COVID-19 vaccine can protect you – and others around you – from getting very ill from COVID-19. Wearing well-fitting masks in public settings is very effective at preventing spread of the virus. While any mask will provide protection, people are encouraged to wear higher quality masks (KN95, Kf94, or N95) when possible. Even if you wear a mask, you should still avoid people who are sick or be cautious in large crowds. Stay home if you are sick and talk with your doctor about getting tested. Cover your cough with a tissue, or cough into your upper sleeve or elbow. Do not cough into your hands.
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
As with a cold or the flu, drink fluids and get plenty of rest. Symptoms of COVID-19 usually go away on their own. If symptoms feel worse than a common cold, contact your doctor. They may prescribe pain or fever medication. If you are having trouble breathing, seek immediate medical care.
If you catch your symptoms early and test positive, talk to your doctor or health department about Paxlovid, a preferred anti-viral medication that reduces the severity of your symptoms, but does not eliminate the virus. Through December 31, 2024, individuals covered under federal programs, such as Medicare or Medicaid, and uninsured patients are eligible for the USG Patient Assistance Program (PAP) operated by Pfizer and can receive Paxlovid at no cost. Patients can enroll to participate.
There are certain eligibility requirements for receiving Paxlovid. A doctor or health department can tell you if you are eligible, or you can read more about it.
The FDA advises people to be cautious of websites and stores selling products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. Additionally, do not take any form of chloroquine, ivermectin or other medicines unless they have been prescribed for you by your family doctor. There are a few options to treat COVID-19 for people at high risk of serious illness. Your physician will decide which option is appropriate for you.
Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?
A COVID-19 vaccine offers the best opportunity to reduce the spread of the virus and its symptoms or need for hospitalization. Vaccine recommendations are based on age, time since last dose, and in some cases, the first vaccine received.
Vaccines include Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, both of which are mRNA vaccines. The Novavax COVID-19 vaccine which is a protein subunit vaccine. J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, a viral vector vaccine has expired and is no longer available for use in the United States as of May 6, 2023.
The AAFP and CDC recommend the Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 5 and older, and the Moderna vaccine for people 18 and older. To maximize protection, COVID-19 vaccine booster doses are now recommended for adults aged 12 and older. People 12-17 years old can only receive a booster dose of Pfizer.
Updated boosters for the Omicron variant were made available beginning in September 2022. In March 2023, the FDA authorized the bivalent Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as a booster dose for children 6 months through 4 years of age.
The CDC provides a guideline to vaccine availability and coverage to people who want the vaccine but do not have insurance.
There is a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine, so be sure you are getting your information and recommendations from a reputable organization or from your family doctor.
Living with COVID-19
Long COVID is a term for the wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems that occur after a COVID-19 infection. It may also be referred to as Post-COVID condition, long-haul COVID, and chronic COVID.
Symptoms can come from the long-term effects of the viral infection, a long illness and hospitalization related to severe COVID-19 disease. They include difficulty breathing, fatigue, malaise, “brain fog” or cognitive impairment, cough, chest pain, headache, rash, impaired daily function, etc. View a complete list of symptoms and talk with your family doctor is you’re experiencing any symptoms after a COVID-19 infection.
If you had COVID-19 and were hospitalized or needed intensive care, your risk for having long COVID increases. There is also new evidence that repeated COVID-19 infections could increase the likelihood of developing long COVID. That is why it is important to get the vaccine. Even if you do get COVID-19, the vaccine will reduce your chances of getting severely ill.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What can I do to prevent my friends and family from getting COVID-19?
- What over-the-counter medicines work best for my symptoms?
- Am I at risk of complications if I get COVID-19?
- What symptoms should I seek medical advice for?
- I do not have health insurance coverage. Where can I get assistance to test and treat COVID-19?
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Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.