COVID-19: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Most people infected with COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment.

However, some will become seriously ill and require medical attention. Older people and those with underlying medical conditions are more likely to develop serious illness. Anyone can get sick with COVID-19 and become seriously ill or die at any age.

COVID-19 has changed over time. These changes, or mutations, are referred to as variants since they vary from the original virus. COVID-19 variants identified as being monitored by the World Health Organization include the Omicron (including the newly emerging XBB.1.5 variant), Delta, Gamma, Beta, and Alpha strains.

Step 1. How Do I Know If I Have COVID?

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 symptoms may include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle or body aches, fatigue, new loss of taste and smell, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. This does not include all possible symptoms.

    COVID-19 symptoms can range from mild to severe. If someone experiences any of the emergency warning signs of COVID-19, they should get emergency medication attention immediately: difficulty breathing, chest pain, inability to wake or stay awake, chest pain, or pale, gray, or blue-colored skin or lips.

    It is important to note that COVID has some of the same symptoms as the flu, common cold, and sinusitis. The only way to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis is by taking a COVID-19 test.

  • COVID in Children

    COVID-19 can affect people of all age groups, including children. Children are also at risk of contracting mild to severe COVID-19 illness. While COVID-19 symptoms in children typically appear in a milder and more cold-like form than in adults, there is still a potential for long-term COVID effects in children.

    Children ages 5 years and older can get the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only vaccine authorized for children ages 5 through 11 and teens ages 12 through 17.

    For a more in-depth look at how to protect your children from COVID-19, back-to-school tips, and how variants affect children, read our COVID-19 In Children blog article.

Step 2. How to Test for COVID-19

  • The different types of testing that can be done for COVID-19 include diagnostic tests and antibody tests. Diagnostic tests include RT-PCR tests and antigen tests.

    The difference between a COVID-19 diagnostic test and antibody test is that a diagnostic test is performed to determine if a person currently tests positive or negative for COVID-19, while an antibody test is used to find out if a person had a COVID-19 infection in the past.

    While a COVID-19 diagnostic test is for people who may be experiencing potential symptoms, an antibody test is for people whose symptoms have subsided for at least 10 days. A doctor’s order may be required for an antibody test, which requires blood to be taken.

    Diagnostic tests typically require a nasal swab, throat swab, or saliva sample. Tests can either be performed in a medical setting, or via COVID-19 at-home test kit. While PCR tests are typically considered more reliable than antigen tests, any individual test may or may not be accurate; additional testing may be required in order to verify results.

  • How to Get a COVID-19 Antibody Test

    A COVID-19 antibody test, also known as a serology test, is a blood test performed by a healthcare provider to determine if you have antibodies for the coronavirus. Antibodies are proteins that your body produces as a response to infections and viruses. If the test results show that you have COVID-19 antibodies, then this means that you likely had a previous COVID-19 infection. Note that an antibody test is not for people who currently have symptoms.

    Where can you get a COVID-19 antibody test? You can get COVID-19 antibody testing by visiting a lab center, where the blood test will be performed. Note that a physician’s order or referral may be required before COVID-19 serology/antibody testing can be performed. An online doctor at PlushCare may be able to provide you with a testing order for a COVID-19 antibody test.

    Request Antibody Testing
  • How to Get an At-Home COVID Test

    An at-home COVID-19 test can be ordered if you think you may be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or have potentially been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

    You can order an at-home COVID test that will be delivered to your home address.

    Here is an overview of how to get an At-Home COVID Test at PlushCare:

    1. First, book an online appointment with one of our physicians to request your test kit. The kit will be overnight shipped through FedEx if it is ordered before 11 am PST on business days.

    2. Once your at-home COVID-19 test kit arrives in the mail, follow the instructions included to collect your sample. Then, mail the sample back to our partner lab, Labcorp.

    3. Then, check your online patient portal for your test results within 2 to 3 business days. Turnaround times will depend on how quickly your test sample arrives at the lab.

    4. If you test positive, your PlushCare doctor will follow up with a care plan and next steps.

    The COVID-19 at-home test is authorized by the FDA, and is available in all 50 states. The LabCorp COVID-19 RT-PCR test is as accurate as a test you would receive at a doctor’s office or hospital, or 92-100% accurate, according to the Emergency Use Authorization Summary.

    The cost of a COVID-19 at-home test kit will vary based on whether you have insurance:

    • Uninsured: Out of pocket appointment cost + $125 for the test

    • Insured, out of network: Out of pocket appointment cost + testing covered through insurance; patients should check with their insurance to see if testing is covered

    • Insured, in-network: Copay + testing covered through insurance; patients should contact their insurer to find out if testing is covered

    Insurance coverage of an at-home COVID-19 test kit will depend on your specific insurance plan. Please contact your insurer for more information about coverage.

    Request At-Home COVID-19 Test

Step 3: How to Treat COVID-19

  • There are multiple COVID-19 treatments and medications currently available. Treatment for COVID-19 will depend on factors such as the patient’s age, medical history, symptoms, and risk factors for severe disease.

    Most people who get COVID-19 will be able to complete their recovery at home through supportive care and symptomatic treatment, and will not require hospitalization. If you require medical attention, certain medications have been approved to treat those at high risk of severe COVID-19-related illness, or made available under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA.

    Current treatment options for patients requiring medical attention or hospitalization include monoclonal antibody treatments, the antiviral drug remdesivir, and the COVID-19 medications Paxlovid and Molnupiravir.

    Recovery time from a COVID-19 illness will vary for each individual, and may be affected by factors such as overall health and age. Recovery typically takes an average of about two weeks for mild cases, though recovery can last for up to six weeks for more severe cases. In some cases, COVID can last for months in the form of long COVID, or long-haul COVID.

    After a patient recovers from having COVID-19, a doctor may considered recommending post-COVID-19 health screenings in order to check in on the patient’s overall health, rule out any potential complications, and to determine if any chronic care management is needed.

  • COVID-19 Pill

    COVID-19 medications include Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s Molnupiravir, which have both received an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA. 

    Also informally known as COVID-19 pill, these antiviral medications are for people who have recently experienced mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms and are considered part of high-risk groups.

    • The Pfizer COVID medication, Paxlovid, is taken twice daily for 5 days, within 5 days of onset of COVID symptoms. Three pills are taken twice daily for a total of 5 days. Each carton contains 30 tablets divided in 5 daily-dose blister cards.

    • The Merck COVID pill, Molnupiravir, can be taken at home after a patient experiences mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19.

    The COVID-19 pill works by disrupting the function of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The Pfizer COVID-19 pill works by blocking a step in the SARS-CoV-2 replication process, preventing viral RNA from replicating. The Merck COVID-19 pill creates mutations in the coronavirus’s genetic code while it replicates; eventually, the coronavirus will have too many mutations to function, causing the virus to die.

    Side effects of the COVID-19 pill depend on the specific medication. The Pfizer COVID-19 pill has a significant number of drug interactions between it and other common medications. Tell a physician about all current medications you are taking if being considered for a prescription for either of the COVID pills.

    Current supply of the COVID-19 pills is limited, and pharmacies may not currently have COVID-19 medications in stock.

Causes of COVID-19

  • COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is part of the coronavirus family of viruses. COVID-19 typically leads to respiratory symptoms, though the disease can also impact other areas of the body beyond the lungs and respiratory system.

    COVID-19 primarily spreads through respiratory droplets that occur when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks, causing transmission when the droplets are inhaled or land in the nose, mouth, or eyes of people who are near.

    Airborne transmission of the virus is possible. While COVID-19 can also spread through contact with surfaces that contain the virus, this is considered a low risk means of transmission. Washing your hands, regularly cleaning your home, and disinfecting frequently used surfaces all play an important role in prevention.

COVID-19 Diagnosis

  • A COVID-19 diagnosis is confirmed through receiving the results of a COVID diagnostic test, typically either a PCR or antigen test. A COVID test is the only way to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis, and also rules out other conditions which have similar symptoms.

    COVID-19 is typically diagnosed after a patient experiences mild to moderate respiratory symptoms similar to the cold or flu, such as fever, cough, chills, loss of taste and smell, sore throat, and body aches. If you are feeling any of these symptoms, it may be time to see a doctor online, or get an at-home COVID-19 test kit in order to confirm a diagnosis and determine next steps for treatment.

Step 4: How to Prevent COVID-19

  • The best COVID-19 prevention is to get vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine. Three COVID-19 vaccines are available in the United States.

    Precautions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 include:

    • Regularly washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

    • Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available

    • Covering your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze

    • Avoiding touching your face, eyes, and mouth

    • Practicing social distancing and avoiding close contact and large gatherings

    • Staying home if you feel sick or ill, even if you were not exposed to COVID-19

    • Getting vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine

    If you have medical conditions or take medications that raise your risk of COVID-19, speak with a PlushCare doctor to learn more about COVID-19 prevention and precautions.

COVID-19 Vaccine

  • The three COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States are the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Moderna vaccine, and Johson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are FDA approved, after they previously received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

    The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are mRNA vaccines, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an adenovirus vaccine. The CDC has updated its recommendations with a preference for individuals to receive an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine over the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

    Possible COVID-19 vaccine side effects may include:

    • Pain, swelling, or redness at the injection site

    • Swollen lymph nodes in the armpit

    • Joint or muscle pain

    • Headache

    • Tiredness

    • Nausea and vomiting

    • Fever and chills

    Side effects after vaccination should go away in a few days. Some people experience no side effects. The coronavirus vaccines are safe, and allergic reactions are rare. Everyone who receives a COVID-19 vaccine is monitored for 15 minutes by medical personnel after the vaccine is administered.

    A COVID-19 vaccine card is provided to all vaccine recipients, which serves as a record to keep track of vaccination information.

  • COVID-19 Booster

    A COVID-19 booster shot is an additional dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to boost immunity. COVID-19 booster shots are given to eligible people who have completed the initial COVID-19 vaccination series, in order to reinvigorate the immune system and increase circulating antibodies. 

    If you have questions about booster shots, you can book an appointment with a doctor online to discuss if a booster shot is appropriate. These recommendations are changing regularly as more information becomes available; always check the CDC website prior to scheduling your booster shot for indications and requirements.

Long-Term Effects of COVID-19

  • Some people may experience long COVID, also called long-haul COVID, which means having COVID-19 symptoms or related health problems for weeks or months after initially recovering from a COVID illness. The long-term effects of COVID-19 can vary, and are still being studied in order to better understand them.

    Possible long-term effects or symptoms after initially recovering from COVID-19 may include:

    • Fatigue

    • Cough

    • Shortness of breath

    • Joint pain

    • Chest pain

    • Difficulty concentrating

    • Rapid heartbeat

    • Headaches

    • Depression or anxiety 

    • Loss of taste or smell

    • Intermittent fever

    Mental health struggles after moderate to severe cases of COVID-19 can be especially challenging for patients who were hospitalized.

    A rare yet serious COVID complication which may affect people, primarily children, is multisystem inflammatory syndrome. This causes in different areas of the body and may potentially lead to severe heart damage, requiring special care from a pediatric cardiologist.

    Some larger hospital systems have developed special clinics to support people recovering from long-haul COVID.

    While complications of COVID-19 are still being investigated, doctors can help to treat long-term COVID effects by examining each specific symptom. 

    Treatments that may be able to help with ongoing care and recovery include breathing exercises, medications, and physical therapy. 

Step 5: How to Recover From COVID-19

  • Recovering from COVID-19 is different for each person, often depending on age and overall health. Recovery tends to take an average of two weeks for mild to moderate cases, and most people who become ill with COVID-19 will be able to recover at home.

    People with more severe or serious cases may require hospitalization. If someone displays any of the emergency warning signs of COVID-19, they should immediately seek out emergency medical care.

    A person with COVID-19 should follow their doctor’s instructions regarding care, treatment, and any medicine. Generally, someone with COVID-19 should not leave home unless they need medical care.

    At-home self-care, recovery, and treatment for COVID may include:

    • Getting substantial rest

    • Staying well hydrated by drinking fluids

    • Taking over-the-counter medications to help relieve symptoms such as fever, cough, congestion, aches, and pains

    Before you take any medication, even if it is over-the-counter, it is important to consult your doctor or pharmacist. Taking medication that interacts with medications you are currently taking could have adverse effects.

COVID-19 and Travel

  • Traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic can be complicated and challenging. Being fully vaccinated and up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines is key to traveling safely. However, even if you are fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends that you should still follow all other relevant travel recommendations, including:

    • Wearing a well-fitting mask over your nose and mouth while on public transportation

    • Staying at least six feet away from others and avoiding crowds

    • Washing your hands regularly or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer

    • Following local and state guidelines when traveling to and from each state

    Do not travel if you are sick, have tested positive for COVID-19, are currently awaiting COVID-19 test results, or have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19.

    Be sure to consult the latest CDC requirements and recommendations prior to domestic or international travel. Also consider the COVID-19 situation of the location you are traveling to, including the number of cases, hospitalizations, and test positivity rate.

  • While the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, most people who have COVID-19 will be able to recover without requiring hospitalization. Wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands are all ways to prevent exposure to COVID-19.

    If you are feeling unwell or have tested positive for COVID-19, and are unsure about your condition or next steps, you can speak with a PlushCare doctor to learn more information and get a treatment plan, which may include medications if needed. You can also talk to a physician after recovering for a post-COVID health screening.

COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions

  • Washing your hands is an important way to protect yourself from becoming ill. To effectively wash your hands, use soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You should wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, using the restroom, and before and after you eat or prepare food.

    If you do not have access to soap and water, you can use hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol.

    You can get diagnostic coronavirus testing at home. Meet with a PlushCare doctor online to request your COVID-19 at-home testing kit. Following your appointment, your testing kit will be overnighted to your home. Follow the instructions to collect your sample and return it to our partner lab. Your COVID-19 test results will be available in as little as 48 hours. Getting tested at home reduces the spread of COVID-19 and is recommended over going to get testing at an urgent care center.

    Test results will be returned to you within 2-3 business days depending on how fast your sample arrives at the lab. If your results have not arrived within that time frame, please call us at 1-888-875-3969, email us at [email protected], or message our team using the in-app messenger.

    The Labcorp COVID-19 RT-PCR test is just as accurate as a test you would receive at a doctor’s office or hospital, 92-100% accurate, according to the Emergency Use Authorization Summary (EAU). If you have any other questions about accuracy, please book an appointment with one of our PlushCare doctors or reach out to our Care team.

    • Uninsured: Out of pocket appointment cost + $125 for the test

    • Insured, out of network with PlushCare: Out of pocket appointment cost + testing covered through insurance (please check with your insurance to see if it is covered)

    • Insured, in-network with PlushCare: Copay + testing covered through insurance (please check with your insurance to see if it is covered)

    If you experienced COVID-19 symptoms more than 10 days ago, you are eligible for COVID-19 antibody testing. The test will determine if you were exposed to COVID-19 and may indicate immunity.

    A positive test means you have had the virus in the past, at least two weeks prior to the test and that your body has antibodies to the virus. A recent study showed that having antibodies does protect you against infection. That said, we still don’t know how long the antibodies last in your system.

    Recovery time from COVID-19 will vary greatly. It typically takes two weeks for mild cases, but for more critical cases, it could take up to six weeks. New data is showing that recovery varies from person to person, and depends on factors like age and overall health. 

    There are also cases of COVID that can last months. This is sometimes called long haul COVID, or long COVID-19. Patients known as “long haulers” can continue having COVID symptoms for months after first getting COVID. This can happen to anyone, no matter their age, health, or severity of symptoms.

    Contract tracing is a process that notifies people who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. This allows people to check to see if they have any COVID-19 symptoms, get tested for COVID-19, and isolate or quarantine themselves if necessary.