COVID-19 plays out similarly to a bad cold or flu for most people. But testing positive feels a whole lot more worrisome: There's no way to know what your recovery will look like for sure, and on top of that, there's the added layer of wanting to avoid spreading the virus at all costs.
The good news is that experts have learned a lot about this infection since the early days of the pandemic. That can help you know more about what to expect, what you should be doing to get better and when it's OK to be around other people again, as well as how your health might be affected down the road.
Here's what you need to know about recovering from COVID-19 — and how to move forward once you're healthy again.
How Long Will Symptoms Last?
When it comes to how bad you'll feel and when you'll be better, COVID-19 is sort of like a box of chocolates from hell: You don't know exactly what you're going to get.
The virus comes with a wide range of possible symptoms that can start anywhere from two to 14 days after you've been exposed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Sore throat
- Fever or chills
- Muscle or body aches
- Loss of taste or smell
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
And of course, some people experience a whole lot of nothing. Though the data is continually evolving, up to 40 percent of people with COVID-19 may be completely asymptomatic, per a July 2020 estimate from the CDC.
Among the people who experience symptoms, around 80 percent will have symptoms that are mild, according to the CDC. In this case, mild means the symptoms are not serious enough to send you to the hospital.
If you're in that boat, the path towards getting better might look similar to recovering from a bad cold or the flu, says Stony Brook, New York-based internist Sunitha Posina, MD. Likely, you'll start feeling like yourself again in a week or two.
About 80 percent of people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization.
For those who experience complications, symptoms often start to get serious during the second week of being sick. Signs include:
- Trouble breathing
- Pain or pressure in your chest
- Trouble staying awake
- Bluish lips or face
In that case, it's hard to say just how long it'll be before your symptoms improve. "When you're hospitalized, we have a wide variety," Dr. Posina says. "We've had people stay for a day or two and need oxygen. But then there's a whole different set of people who get very sick and eventually need to be put on a ventilator."
The Road to Recovery
For now, COVID-19 has no cure. "It's more about supportive care," Dr. Posina says. And what that kind of care looks like has a lot to do with how bad your symptoms are. Here's what to know about recovering at home versus what you might expect if you develop complications and have to go to the hospital.
Recovering at Home
Mild COVID-19 cases that feel like a bad cold or the flu have a similar recovery, with extra precautions to reduce your risk of getting anyone else sick. Even if you don't feel that bad, it's essential to stay home, and, if you're living with others, to separate yourself as much as possible. "In terms of isolating yourself, you should be quarantining for 14 days," Dr. Posina says.
That means trying to stay in your own room, wearing a mask when you have to interact with others and being vigilant about washing your hands and cleaning shared surfaces as much as possible, according to the CDC. Limit your contact with pets, too, per the CDC.
Once you've got the distancing down, focus on finding ways to feel better. Experts recommend that you:
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water or clear fluids like herbal tea, broth or juice. Steer clear of alcohol and caffeine, which can be dehydrating.
- Rest as much as possible. Sleep is key for helping your immune system fight off the virus, says Mark Cucuzzella, MD, professor of family medicine at West Virginia University.
- Take OTC meds as needed. Options like acetaminophen can help with fever and discomfort.
- Return to activity slowly. Resist the urge to push yourself, even if you aren't feeling that bad. Once your quarantine is up and your symptoms have subsided, start with gentle activities like walking and slowly build up from there. "Exerting yourself increases your body's metabolic demand, and your body may not be able to cope with that. We don't know yet," Dr. Posina says.
Finally, hang in there: If you're feeling crummy but your symptoms aren't veering toward the realm of severe, you'll likely be back to yourself in a week or two, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Recovering at the Hospital
There's less of a clear general framework for patients who require hospitalization, per both Dr. Posina and Dr. Cucuzzella. What you'll need in order to get better depends on factors like your oxygen levels and other complications you develop (like pneumonia) and any co-existing conditions you may already have.
Ultimately, treatment guidelines for COVID-19 are still evolving, and many individual hospitals are formulating their own plans, Dr. Posina says.
Since there's no cure, your care team's goal is to manage your symptoms while your immune system fights off the virus. You'll likely be given supplemental oxygen if your oxygen levels are low; patients who develop severe trouble breathing may need to be put on ventilators. Your breathing will be monitored regularly, and you'll be given IV fluids to prevent dehydration.
The total recovery time for a severe case of COVID-19 can take 6 weeks or more.
You might also receive drug treatments that are quickly becoming more standard, including:
- Remdesivir: The antiviral drug is being administered regularly, since preliminary findings published in May 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine showed it shortens recovery time from 15 to 11 days in patients requiring supplemental oxygen.
- Dexamethasone: A commonly used corticosteroid, it's become the go-to drug for fighting severe lung failure, since it's been shown to reduce the risk of death. Dexamethasone is known for its ability to reduce inflammation and suppress overactive immune function, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends it for patients who require ventilators or supplemental oxygen.
- Anticoagulants or blood thinners: In some severe cases, COVID-19 has been found to cause dangerous blood clots in the lungs, so you'll likely be given a blood thinner like warfarin as a preventive measure, per the NIH.
- Your doctors will likely send you home once your fever breaks and your breathing has returned to normal, per July 2020 interim guidance from the CDC. These are two signs that suggest your body is on the mend. In some cases, you may also need to test negative for the virus. Ask your care team what symptoms to watch for that should prompt you to seek medical attention again.
After that, the focus should be on slowly regaining your strength and getting back to functioning normally — which could take a few weeks, months or even longer, depending on the severity of your complications and how long you were hospitalized.
"Days of lying in bed affects the cardiovascular system and muscle functioning," Dr. Cucuzella explains. "If you're able to do activities of daily living, you don't need specialized therapy. But if you're very weak, you might need physical therapy or assistance to get back to being independent."
As for when you'll finally feel like yourself again? The timing varies widely, but the total recovery time for severe COVID-19 cases can take six weeks or longer, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
When Can You Be Around People?
Part of recovering from COVID-19 means isolating yourself as much as possible to avoid spreading the virus to others, per the CDC. If you've been hospitalized, ask your care team when it will be safe for you to be around people again. Otherwise, once your symptoms have fully subsided, it's generally OK to come out of quarantine.
You'll want to refer to the CDC's checklist to confirm that you're good to go. You can be around other people after meeting all three of these benchmarks:
- No fever for at least 3 days.
- Your respiratory symptoms (coughing and trouble breathing) have improved.
- It's been at least 10 days since your symptoms first started.
In some cases your doctor might recommend getting re-tested. If so, it's safe to be around others when you have no fever, your respiratory symptoms are improving and you've gotten two negative test results at least 24 hours apart, per the CDC.