Early signs and symptoms of Covid

In this section we explore the first signs of Covid that people we spoke to noticed. Some people we spoke to had no symptoms from Covid. Some suspected that they might have Covid because they were feeling unwell. Other people we spoke had symptoms but didn’t realise that they were caused by Covid until they took a test. These people usually thought their symptoms were a sign of something else like a cold or the flu. In this section we cover:

  • Noticing early signs of illness in the body
  • Differentiating Covid from a cold or the flu

Noticing early signs of illness in the body

People we spoke to felt unwell and noticed a wide range of symptoms of Covid, but others didn’t realise they had Covid because they had no symptoms. Some of the early signs of illness for people we spoke were:

  • Tiredness
  • Aches and pains
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

Kashif’s symptoms started with a fever and body aches. He didn’t have the energy to move.

Gulsoom noticed that ‘everybody was reacting differently to Covid’.

There are many different symptoms connected with Covid. Visit the page ‘Living through and recovering from Covid symptoms’ for more information.

Because Covid-19 is a new disease, at the start of the pandemic there was not a lot of information available to help people to decide if their symptoms were a sign of Covid. At this time the government and NHS told people to look out for three main symptoms – a new, continuous cough, fever, and changes in taste and smell. Lots of people we spoke to who caught Covid in 2020 were confused because their symptoms were different to these ‘big three’.

Irene didn’t have the ‘typical’ symptoms that were often spoken about in the media so wasn’t sure if she had Covid.

Differentiating Covid from a cold or flu

People we spoke to sometimes first suspected that they had a cold or flu before later realising that it was Covid. Mr. Ehsaan didn’t think too much about feeling unwell because he assumed it was a ‘normal cold’. Jess, who works in a hospital, thought her cough was ‘nothing’, just part of a ‘normal virus’ that she must have caught at work.

Beth started getting flu-like symptoms and didn’t think anything of it. She then realized it might be Covid, so she took a test.

The main ways that people we spoke to noticed that Covid was different from a cold or flu were:

  • Feeling unusually tired
  • Symptoms lasting longer than usual
  • Uncommon symptoms, like changes in taste or smell, an unusual cough and body pains

Feeling very tired

People we spoke to sometimes felt different in the early stages of Covid than they would with a cold or flu. They described thinking that something was ‘weird’, ‘not right’ and ‘odd’. One of the things that people we spoke to noticed was feeling especially tired and run down. Kashif said he noticed he was ‘tired tired tired’, and after brushing his teeth and washing his face he just wanted to get straight back into bed.

People we spoke to sometimes first thought this tiredness was because of their busy lives. Sam had been partying at the weekend and thought it could just be a long hangover. Gertrude, who works as a care home nurse, said she ‘woke up not feeling right’ but thought ‘maybe I’m just really tired because it was really, really busy’ at her job. Helen remembers feeling ‘not right’, but put it down to having done a long bike ride at the weekend. Other people we spoke with thought that their tiredness might be caused by anxieties about the pandemic.

Lyn, a mental health worker, thought she was just tired from work and stressed about the pandemic.

Genevieve wasn’t sure if she had symptoms of breathlessness or whether she was anxious.

Symptoms lasting longer than usual

Even when people we spoke to saw their early signs of illness as a cold or a flu, an indication that something was different was that they got sicker than usual. Over a couple of days Goutam started feeling ‘worse and worse’, with a rising temperature, increased coughing, and aches all over. Mahabuba had a fever and felt that it was ‘worse than normal’.

Matt didn’t think of Covid at all until his extreme tiredness didn’t improve after a few days.

Gulsoom thought her father had a normal cold or flu until he rapidly deteriorated and struggled to breathe.

Tony Z realised something was different when his cough wouldn’t go away even after using an inhaler.

Uncommon symptoms

Some symptoms of Covid were easier to identify than others. These were often symptoms that people didn’t usually get with a cold or flu.

People told us that changes in taste or smell often made them think about Covid. When Sarita was eating chocolate, she noticed that it tasted salty rather than sweet. Zubair decided to isolate from his family when he realised he had completely lost his sense of taste and smell.

Genevieve’s husband is 100% sure he had Covid because he lost his sense of smell and taste.

Mohammed realised he might have Covid when he lost his appetite and sense of taste.

Some people we spoke experienced an unusual cough. Sarita didn’t usually get a cough, so when one started, she was suspicious that it might be Covid. Gwilym noticed he had a ‘dry raspy type of cough’ and booked a test.

Paul X had a cough that was more violent than usual and didn’t go away.

Some people we spoke to also made a connection between unusual pain in their bodies and Covid. Tony told us about ‘serious aches’ which he had never had before. Esther felt like she had been ‘hit by a truck’. Mirua gets flu often but felt that her ‘whole body was really sore’ in a way that was ‘totally different from flu’.

Miura suspected Covid when her whole body was sore in a different way than she was used to with flu.

Razia thought she was just under the weather until she woke up with terrible body pain.

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