What Does Recovery From COVID-19 Look Like?
Yale Medicine physician describes the recovery path for patients with a mild case of COVID-19.
Note: Information in this article was accurate at the time of original publication. Because information about COVID-19 changes rapidly, we encourage you to visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and your state and local government for the latest information.
[Originally published: June 19, 2020. Updated: Dec. 21, 2022.]
As COVID-19 has evolved, so have symptoms. Thankfully, one thing has remained the same: the vast majority of cases are mild.
Matthew Ellman, MD, director of Yale Internal Medicine Associates, says most of his practice’s patients who are infected, especially those who are vaccinated, do not require hospitalization. “We evaluate them for treatment, and they are given instructions for monitoring their symptoms and are told to reach out to us with any concerns,” he says.
There are also patients with ‘long COVID,’ those who face lingering symptoms months after their initial infection. Often called “long haulers,” these patients have a variety of problems ranging from “brain fog” to fatigue to pulmonary and cardiac issues, Dr. Ellman notes. Researchers are still trying to understand long COVID, which can affect patients regardless of the severity of their disease. Yale Medicine’s Post-COVID-19 Recovery Program treats patients with these ongoing medical challenges.
We talked more with Dr. Ellman about a typical case of COVID-19.
What is a mild case of COVID-19 like?
Many of those infected with the coronavirus, particularly those who are fully vaccinated, exhibit symptoms that are similar to an upper respiratory infection or the flu, Dr. Ellman says.
“They can have some nasal congestion, some sinus congestion, sore throat, muscle aches, and sometimes, a low-grade fever,” he adds. “Unlike earlier in the pandemic, we are now seeing very little of the loss of sense of taste or smell. In the past, that was a clue for COVID, but now it’s more challenging to distinguish it from the common cold and flu.”
Fortunately, there are medications that can treat COVID-19, including Paxlovid and Molnupiravir, which can protect people at high risk for severe illness, Dr. Ellman says.
What does recovery from a mild case of COVID-19 look like?
Given the spectrum of disease severity, recovery can vary.
Dr. Ellman says those who’ve had mild symptoms typically return to their regular lives quickly. “I usually tell patients to be aware of how they are feeling and to listen to their bodies and don’t just get out there and do everything they normally would,” he says. “There can be some lingering effects, including a lack of energy.”
The best strategy is to prevent COVID-19 infection altogether; doctors encourage people to get vaccinated and practice other safety measures, such as masking and handwashing. But if you believe you are infected, you should get tested. If the result is positive, consult your doctor if you are at risk for severe disease and could benefit from antiviral treatments.
People who test positive should also follow the CDC guidelines for isolation, Dr. Ellman says. That includes staying home and isolating from others for at least five days. Isolation can end after five days if you are fever-free for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication) and your symptoms are improving, but you should wear a mask when around others for at least another five days.
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