Here’s what separates mild COVID from a more serious infection.
Since the pandemic began, people have talked about having “mild” COVID-19. Now that breakthrough cases of the virus are becoming more common—and breakthrough cases tend to result in so-called mild symptoms—talk of mild COVID is ramping back up. But everyone’s definition of a mild case seems different.
So what does it mean to have mild COVID, what are the signs that you have mild COVID, and can a mild case progress to one that’s more serious? Infectious disease experts weigh in.
What is mild COVID, exactly?
It’s important to get this out of the way upfront: There’s no clinical definition of mild COVID, so a lot of this is left up to interpretation. In general, though, doctors seem to agree that mild COVID is any form of COVID-19 that doesn’t land you in the hospital.
“It’s a respiratory illness that’s not severe enough to put you in the hospital,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Health. “It varies from having almost no symptoms to a heavy cold to having to go to bed for a few days.”
There’s actually a pretty wide range with mild COVID, spanning from the asymptomatic to more intense symptoms, Lewis Nelson, MD, professor and chair of emergency medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Health. “Mild illness can occur in vaccinated or unvaccinated people, though it is the prominent form of illness in the vaccinated population,” he says. “These patients rarely go on to develop moderate or severe illness.”
What are the symptoms of mild COVID?
Technically, you can have any of the typical symptoms of COVID-19 with mild COVID, Dr. Schaffner says. Those include, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
“There are no specific criteria to differentiate the various levels of illness, and even mild illness in someone with underlying diseases can prove consequential,” Dr. Nelson says.
How long does mild COVID last?
Again, it can vary. Some people with mild COVID may be asymptomatic, or they develop a few symptoms that clear up quickly. Others can be uncomfortable for days. “Mild illness typically lasts three to seven days,” Dr. Nelson says.
What are the signs your mild COVID is getting more serious?
The CDC specifically warns that you should seek medical attention immediately if you develop any of these symptoms:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake up or stay awake
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
What to do if you develop mild COVID
“Most patients feel well if they stay fed and hydrated, using over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen as needed,” Dr. Nelson says.
Even though your symptoms are mild, experts say it’s still a good idea to check in with your doctor. “We now have monoclonal antibody treatments that can prevent the evolution of mild infections into more serious infections,” Dr. Schaffner says. “At the moment, they are indicated for high-risk people but, if you have a positive COVID test, you should call your provider because you might be eligible for monoclonal antibody treatment.” Your doctor can also give you personalized advice on what to do during your illness, he says.
And, if you have an underlying health condition, you’ll definitely want to check in with your doctor, Dr. Nelson says. “Even mild COVID can lead to complications,” he says.
Overall, experts stress the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19. “Vaccination prevents most people who develop COVID from progressing beyond the mild stages, and markedly reduces hospitalization and death,” Dr. Nelson says. “It is imperfect and people can still develop concerning COVID, but the risk of doing so is significantly lower as is the complication rate if it develops.”