Timeline of COVID Symptoms
Updated 14th December 2021 - for the most up to date coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance and information, please visit the NHS or government’s dedicated pages. This advice may differ in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
While it might feel like we’ve been living with COVID-19 for a long time, it is still a relatively new disease. For this reason, and the fact people can have very different reactions to the virus, we’re constantly learning more about it. This makes it hard for us to give answers to some of the key questions people ask about symptoms, how long they take to show, how long people are infectious for and how long they last.
In this article we’re going to take a look at an estimated timeline of a COVID-19 infection, when people are most contagious and how long people can expect symptoms to typically last.
We’ve had the symptoms of COVID-19 drilled into us since the start of the pandemic, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that the key symptoms are still:
- A high temperature
- A new, continuous cough
- A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.
Public Health England (PHE) say about 85% of people with COVID-19 will have at least one of these 3 symptoms. Other common symptoms include breathlessness, tiredness and aches and pains.
We also can’t forget that many people are asymptomatic. It’s thought that between 17% and 20% of people with the virus have no symptoms at all.
How long before COVID symptoms start?
The time between getting infected with a disease and starting symptoms is known as the incubation period. The incubation period for COVID-19 is between 2 and 14 days. But the average time before showing symptoms is thought to be 5 days. This is based on a study done in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic started. The study found that the median incubation period was 5.1 days and that 97.5% of people with symptoms will develop these within 11.5 days.
The day you develop symptoms is classed as ‘day 0’ of your infection. If you test positive, it’s from this day that you can calculate self-isolation periods.
How soon after exposure to COVID-19 can I be tested?
If you’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive, you might have to self-isolate. Self-isolation guidance depends on your age, vaccination status and where you live. In England, if you've been in contact with someone with COVID-19, you have to self-isolate unless:
- You're fully vaccinated (having received the second vaccine dose at least 14 days previously)
- You're under the age of 18 years and 6 months old
The NHS advises getting a test if you’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive even if you have no symptoms.
Taking a test after exposure to COVID-19 proves that you do not have COVID-19 on the day you get tested, but it doesn’t mean you can’t develop it later
We know that incubation periods vary depending on the person, so it is possible to get tested too early after exposure. But if you have symptoms of COVID-19 you should get a test as soon as possible.
How long do COVID symptoms last?
People with severe COVID-19 symptoms typically follow a pattern which begins with loss of taste and/or smell, fever, and cough in the first couple of days. This cough then develops into severe respiratory symptoms which can require hospital treatment around a week after their symptoms started.
How long are you contagious with COVID?
How infectious someone is depends on how much virus they’re carrying and how much of this virus is able to multiply.
An extensive study in the Lancet Microbe has found that people are most likely to pass on COVID-19 during the first 5 days of symptoms starting. The study found that the amount of active virus (virus that can replicate) in people’s throat particles peaked in the first 5 days from symptoms starting. No active virus was found after 9 days of symptoms starting, so it’s unlikely that the majority of these people would be very infectious beyond those 9 days.
It’s still important to always follow self-isolation rules and social distancing guidelines, to prevent the spread of the virus.
Post COVID symptoms
For some people, COVID-19 can cause symptoms which last weeks or months after the infection has gone. This is known as post-COVID-19 syndrome or long COVID.
Most people will recover from COVID in a couple of weeks, but for some people this recovery process might take longer. There seems to be no link between how ill people are with the COVID and their chances of experiencing long COVID.
Common symptoms of long COVID include:
- Shortness of breath
- Tight chest
- Problems with memory and/or concentration
- Heart palpitations
- Pins and needles
- Aches and pains
- Feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
Some people also experience some of the symptoms associated with the COVID-19 infection, such as, a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste.
Find out more about long COVID.