Mild, moderate and severe symptoms of COVID-19: How to tell the difference

In the midst of a pandemic like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to panic if you sneeze, cough, or have a scratchy throat.

We’d like to give you some perspective so that you don’t panic, and so that you know when it’s time to see your doctor or go to a hospital, and, just as important, when it isn’t.

Remember, staying home and away from public places is still the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19. And a doctor’s office or hospital is probably the riskiest place you can find yourself, so you don’t want to go there unless it’s absolutely necessary.

COVID-19 is still too new for there to be standard definitions of the symptoms associated with the designations “mild,” “moderate,” “serious” and “severe.”

But there are some preliminary definitions that can help you understand where you fall on the spectrum, and what you should do, and not do if you find yourself with flu-like symptoms.

Related: 5 ways to prepare your home and family for coronavirus

Knowledge is, indeed, power in this case. The power to stay calm and know what you need to do. Use these guidelines to help you.

Mild, moderate, serious or severe?

Mild. A mild case of COVID-19 in and of itself is not dangerous. But for people with underlying health issues, like asthma, or for older people, a mild case can progress to a moderate case.

According to a report by 25 infectious disease experts from the World Health Organization and China, 80 percent of known cases of COVID-19 cause mild to moderate illness.

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Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, says this about the symptoms of a mild case of COVID-19:

This mild infection starts normally with a fever, although it may take a couple of days to get a fever. You will have some respiratory symptoms; you have some aches and pains. You’ll have a dry cough. This is what the majority of individuals will have.”

Moderate. If you are moderately ill with COVID-19, you will experience:

  • coughing
  • a fever higher than 100.4 degrees
  • chills
  • a feeling that you can’t, or don’t want to, get out of bed

Some who are moderately ill will also experience shortness of breath. It might be shortness of breath after climbing stairs or shortness of breath without any activity at all.

Shortness of breath [with the virus] is a symptom to always check with a health care provider. Period,” says Dr. Kenneth E. Lyn-Kew, a pulmonologist in the Section of Critical Care Medicine and Department of Medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver.

Why? Because shortness of breath may indicate low blood oxygen levels. If your blood isn’t carrying enough oxygen to your organs and tissues, it can cause your organs to shut down, which would be fatal.

People with moderate symptoms aren’t likely to need hospitalization unless they develop pneumonia. Older people and those with underlying health conditions are likely to need supplemental oxygen and/or a respirator to prevent organ shutdown.

If you experience symptoms of a moderate case of COVID-19, you should do your best to stay hydrated. Dehydration is another thing that can land you in the hospital.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • thirst
  • dry mouth
  • decreased urine output
  • dark yellow urine
  • headache
  • dizziness

The World Health Organization says that a mild or moderate case of the virus will last about two weeks, from the first symptom through to recovery.

Serious and severe symptoms

If COVID-19 progresses into this range, there are different problems to contend with.

First, it can happen quickly, over the course of a few hours or a few days.

Second, the virus can enter lung cells and start replicating. The immune system may try and prevent this, and the inflammation it causes can destroy lung tissue and result in a more severe form of pneumonia.

If you have symptoms

You’ll want to describe particular symptoms to your doctor, rather than use the terms “mild,” “moderate,” or “severe.” Those terms are not precise, and you want your doctor to know your exact symptoms.

Above all, don’t panic. If you’re not sure how to treat your symptoms, even mild ones, call your doctor or the nearest urgent care center. They may be overwhelmed right now, but they will do their best to give you accurate answers about what you should do.

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  1. Coronavirus Symptoms: Defining Mild, Moderate And Severe — NPR
  2. Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — World Health Organization
Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.