Understanding the symptoms of coronavirus while at home

Monday April 13 2020

Dr. Christopher Peterson

Dr. Christopher Peterson 

By Chris Peterson

You’re doing all you can to keep coronavirus at bay. That is; you are staying indoors, maintaining social distance, regularly washing hands and disinfecting objects you touch the most, including your mobile phones. That is quite an effort!

Because you’re now spending most of your time indoors, there are few things you need to do right.

One of the key things is to keep feeding yourself right information, paying close attention to symptoms and knowing what steps to take to manage them.

How long before symptoms start?

This is what we medically call, incubation. The incubation period of an infection is the time between being exposed to it and developing symptoms. It is not always possible to know when people were first infected, especially when it comes to novel coronavirus.

There seems to be significant variation in the length of time it takes people to develop symptoms.


Some countries only test (and confirm) coronavirus in people with severe infection, and it’s not known if the incubation period for people with critical/severe/moderate/mild infection is different.

It’s believed that many people do not develop symptoms (they are asymptomatic), so there are no symptoms to count back from.

However, according to the information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the median incubation period of Covid-19 (the middle number of days between maximum and minimum, and usually the most likely number in a ‘bell-shaped curve’) is 5.1 days. 97.5 per cent of people who develop symptoms will have got them within 11.5 days.

Symptoms and managing them

When it comes to initial symptoms, however, the World Health Organization report based on 56,000 confirmed cases revealed the most common symptoms to be: fever (88 per cent), dry cough (68 per cent), tiredness (38 per cent), shortness of breath (19 per cent), aching muscles or joints (15 per cent), sore throat (14 per cent), headache (14 per cent) and blocked nose (5 per cent).

There does not appear to be any particular pattern in the order of symptom development. Some people will start with a cough; others will develop fever, with cough arriving only a few days later.

If you have mild disease, fever is likely to settle within a few days and you are likely to feel significantly better after a week.

You may continue coughing for a couple of days - while you should be very careful to maintain social distancing, as everyone should, you don’t need to stay in isolation just because your cough has not completely resolved. If you’re well in other respects, your likelihood of infecting others at this stage is low.

In people with more severe infection, shortness of breath is likely to become more marked 7-10 days after they develop symptoms.

This occurs because the infection takes hold deep in your lungs, leading to inflammation which prevents efficient transfer of oxygen from your lungs to your bloodstream. Symptoms can develop rapidly (in hours) and worsen in minutes that’s when you will need urgent medical attention and not keep staying at home anymore. Especially if:

• You are too breathless to speak more than a few words.

• Your breathing has become harder and faster in the last hour, even when you are not doing anything.

• You are feeling so ill that you have stopped doing everything you normally do.

• You have suddenly become confused (this can be a symptom of lack of oxygen to the brain).

And please keep in mind that being infected by coronavirus is not a death sentence. It’s important to remember that you are much more likely to recover than to die.

The author is a medical doctor based in Dar es salaam