Living through and recovering from Covid symptoms

In this section we explore the symptoms that people we spoke to had while they were ill, how these symptoms impacted their day-to-day life, and when they started to recover. People we spoke to caught Covid between March 2020 and October 2021, before the Omicron variant emerged. Experiences of Covid varied a lot between individuals and were also affected by someone’s vaccination status and which variant of Covid was dominant at the time they got sick.

Topics discussed in this section include:

  • Variety in symptoms and experiences
  • Impact of different symptoms on day-to-day life
  • The road to recovery

Variety in symptoms and experiences

There were lots of differences in people’s illness experiences and the symptoms that affected them the most. For example, Elvis had no symptoms at all while his father, who lived with him, became extremely unwell from Covid and eventually died in hospital.

Dawn’s family caught Covid in October 2020. She was surprised about how Covid affected them all differently.

Some symptoms that people told us about were:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Changes in taste and smell
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Aches and pains
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Feeling something is stuck in your throat
  • Impact on appetite

Some people we spoke to found that their experience of Covid was similar to having a cold. Rick felt lucky that he was never very poorly with Covid. Other people described their Covid illness as the most unwell they had ever been. Kashif noticed that ‘some people it affects a bit more and some people it affects a bit less’.

Sam caught Covid in July 2021. She was surprised at how sick they were and how many symptoms she had.

Differences in experiences were more obvious when several people within households or social groups caught Covid at the same time. Dawn said about her family’s experience that ‘it’s an eye opener, having Covid, because we all had different symptoms, and we all felt completely differently about it’. Mandy and several of her colleagues had very different Covid experiences, ‘some of us had it really bad, some of us had it really mild.’

Haliza’s family caught Covid in October 2020. They all experienced different symptoms.

Sam and her friends caught Covid in July 2021. Sam couldn’t get out of bed for three days, but her friends were just quite tired.

The people we interviewed caught Covid at different times across 2020 and 2021, when different variants were dominant in the UK. Different variants are associated with slightly different symptoms. Earlier variants, for example the Alpha and Beta variants, were more likely to affect things like taste and smell. Whether someone had been vaccinated also changed their experience, as having a Covid vaccine generally lessens symptoms and makes them easier to manage. Reflecting on the diversity of Covid symptoms between people, and how they changed over time and with different variants and vaccines, Matt wondered if it was even possible to identify a ‘classic Covid symptom’.

Impact of symptoms on day-to-day life


Tiredness was one of the symptoms that had the biggest impact on people we spoke with. Irene and Helen were normally very active people and were surprised at how tired they felt. Everyday activities like eating and washing became a struggle. Nargis said that she ‘couldn’t even stand long enough to brush my teeth’. Rabbi Wollenberg was so drained of energy that he wasn’t able to pick up his three-month-old son.

Some people we spoke described it as the most tired they have ever been. June felt like she was ‘quietly dying’. Susanne didn’t have the strength to watch TV or listen to the radio. Esther described her energy being ‘non-existent’ and imagined this was what ‘being hit by a truck is like’. Sam B described that it felt like he had been ‘unplugged’.

Gulsoom caught Covid in August 2020. She spent days in bed and was so tired that she struggled to brush her teeth or wash her face.

Irene caught Covid in September 2020. She described the tiredness as ‘awful awful awful’.

Tony Z caught Covid in December 2020. He couldn’t get out of bed and felt that Covid ‘drained every life out of me’.

Coughing and breathlessness

Some people we spoke to had symptoms to do with their respiratory system, like coughing and breathlessness. This was more common for people who caught Covid when the Alpha and Beta Covid variants were dominant in the UK in 2020 and at the start of 2021.

Jess didn’t feel very unwell but had ‘a bit of a cough’ and a runny nose. Paul’s cough lasted a few months and affected his sleep. Abdul really struggled with his cough, which felt like ‘knives being stabbed between the ribcage’. At its worst Doreen’s cough was so bad that her whole body would shake. A few days into his illness, Tun started getting intense coughing bouts that made him nauseous enough to be sick.

Meanwhile, Sam didn’t get a cough, but she felt that ‘there was always something present in my lungs’. Many people we spoke to described feeling ‘phlegmy’ of full of ‘mucus’ while they were ill.

Mr Eshaan had Covid in March 2020. He would sometimes cough for half an hour without stopping.

Some people we spoke to found it hard to breathe when they had Covid. Fahmida felt like there was ‘nothing inside my chest’. Gertrude felt that she was ‘running out of breath’. Breathlessness made it hard to move around, particularly to walk upstairs.

Walking upstairs made Emdad feel breathless and weak after he caught Covid in December 2020.

Gwilym caught Covid in March 2020. He could feel the energy drain away from him after going upstairs.


Fever was a symptom for some people we spoke with. Some people felt very hot, some felt cold, and others would cycle between the two.

Tony Z caught Covid in December 2020. He described having ‘hot and cold sweats’.

Matthew said the hardest part of his illness was repeated fevers. June described that she would get a ‘kind of whoosh of heat’ from time to time. Doreen’s fever felt like ‘your whole body is on fire’ even though she didn’t have a very high temperature. Sam told us that ‘for four hours I’d be shivering, and it would be boiling outside and then for another four hours I’d be sweating.’

Doreen got Covid in October 2020. When she had a fever she felt like she was ‘burning up’.

Fever made some people sweat a lot. This could be uncomfortable and made it difficult for them to sleep. Mandy decided to throw away all her bedding because she had sweated so much while she had a fever. Pooja described that her bedsheets were ‘always saturated’ and she was having four or five showers a day.

Robert caught Covid in January 2021 and sweated a lot through his fever. His wife likened his hot flushes to the menopause.

Covid caused different experiences of temperature in the body for some people. Claudia said she ‘probably had more hot flushes’ while she was ill. Emdad described feeling a coldness in his heart.

Emdad felt there was a small hollow in his heart with cold coming through it.

Headaches and body pains

Some of the people we spoke were in pain while there were unwell. Sometimes this was because of headaches. Sonal felt she had ‘tons of pressure’ on her head. Laurie described it as ‘like an axe going in my head’. Miura had such an ‘absolutely awful’ headache that, at one point, that she felt like ‘jumping from my window’.

Mandy, who caught Covid in December 2020, had never experienced such a bad headache.

Other people we spoke to had pain in their bodies. This could be pain in muscles, joints and organs. Some people felt that pain would move around their bodies. Gertrude said, ‘There’s no pain like the Covid pain’. Razia describes the pain she felt while she was ill as worse than childbirth. Sunita remembers feeling ‘every muscle, every everything in my body just aching’.

Nargis, who caught Covid in January 2021, usually has joint pain but Covid made it ‘ten times worse’.

Changes in taste and smell

Some people we spoke to who caught Covid in 2020 and early 2021 noticed changes in their taste and smell. Sue and others described having a metallic taste in their mouth. Jaswinder never lost her sense of smell but couldn’t taste for about five days. Emdad said he lost about half of his taste and smell. Paul couldn’t smell for several months. It eventually started to come back for about an hour a day. Other people experienced changes in taste and smell, such as these senses becoming more extreme or certain tastes and smells getting mixed up.

Emdad, who caught Covid in December 2020, felt that he lost about fifty percent of his taste and smell while he was ill.

Sarita caught Covid in January 2021. Her taste was affected and everything tasted the same.

Nargis caught Covid in January 2021. Everything smelt like eggs and washing powder became overwhelming.

Impact of covid symptoms on appetite and eating

Covid sometimes had an impact on people’s digestive systems. Lots of people we spoke to and lost their appetite while they were ill. Others struggled to eat because of nausea. Diarrhoea, or sometimes constipation, also meant people didn’t want to eat. It was three weeks before Esther was able to eat properly after she first caught Covid.

Haliza had Covid in October 2020. She lost her appetite and ate just a slice of toast each day.

Nausea and diarrhoea were difficult symptoms to live with. Miura felt like there was a ‘storm inside my tummy’. Robert was ‘vomiting and vomiting’. The smell of certain foods made him feel sick. Paul was kept awake with bad stomach pain for a couple of nights. These symptoms made it hard to eat or to keep food inside the body, which meant that some people lost weight while they were ill. Matt lost about ten pounds in his first week of illness because of diarrhoea.

Robert caught Covid in January 2021. He vomited a lot and found it hard to breathe.

Pooja caught Covid in March 2020. Her stomach was in pain from the intensity of throwing up.

Other symptoms

While the symptoms described above were some of the most common across different people’s experiences, people we spoke to also told us about a variety of other symptoms.

  • Rashes and itching were an issue for some people. Dawn was affected by ‘itching from head to toe’. Genevieve had a strange, uncomfortable itch inside her ear.
  • Surindar hallucinated while she was ill. She could see George Clooney and David Bowie on her bedroom ceiling.
  • Some people we spoke to experienced eye symptoms. Beth had ‘really gunky eyes’, and Shaista’s eyes were very dry and irritated.
  • Some people also had unusual symptoms after they had recovered. Sonal experienced hair loss, and Mr.Eshaan had a long-term rash.

Beth described her ‘weirdest symptom’ as being ‘really gunky eyes’.

The road to recovery

Not everybody, but a lot of people we spoke to felt like they had either fully or mostly recovered from their worst symptoms around two or three weeks after catching Covid. Any remaining symptoms reduced within about a month. Temitope’s cough got better after about two and a half weeks, and it was fully gone by four weeks. Claudia, whose experience was ‘really quite mild’, felt better within just a few days. Sunita said she recovered within a week but that ‘it wasn’t nice’.

Some people we spoke to described having a few ‘bad days’ in the middle of their illness. Cindy felt so ill at one point that she was frightened she might die but recovered after ten days. Abdul had a ‘very, very dark point’ where he thought he might not recover but felt better when he woke up the next day.

Jaswinder was back to normal after ten days, with four ‘very bad’ days in the middle when she could hardly stand up.

Within households people sometimes recovered at different paces. Haliza’s children recovered quicker than she did, within just a few days. When everyone in Gulsoom’s family got Covid, those with milder symptoms were ‘absolutely fine’ after five days but others took several weeks to fully recover.

Matt caught Covid in August 2021. He felt ropey for a while was very grateful to have had the vaccine.

Everyone recovered from different symptoms at different times in Gulsoom’s family.

Some people we spoke to felt a lingering tiredness, even if they considered themselves to have mostly recovered. Ayny, for example, described that she was still ‘very tired’. Some people, like Tun, June and Irene, talked about living with other persistent symptoms months after first becoming infected. We explore this more in the section ‘Longer term impacts of Covid symptoms.’