What happens when you get the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)?

Ask a Doctor

What happens when you get coronavirus (COVID-19)? I heard symptoms are like a cold or flu? Do you get pneumonia from coronavirus? I have a lung condition, so I’m in an at-risk group for severe complications if I contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Doctor's Response

Usually a person encounters a virus from another person. That usually occurs with droplets from coughing or sneezing -- hence the social distancing of six feet.

Once you cough, the virus becomes airborne for a period of time -- you can be infected from breathing it in. Gravity eventually pulls down the droplets on a surface. Then, someone who touches that surface can also transfer the virus, usually hand-to-mouth. That's when the virus begins to multiply.

  • The worst, most contagious landing spots for coronavirus-infected saliva droplets are smooth metal surfaces.
  • Things like cardboard and fabric can also transfer coronavirus, but it's much more difficult with porous material.

You'll show coronavirus symptoms usually between two to 14 days, with the average being about day five.

Coronavirus early symptoms are much like the flu. They include:

  • a runny nose,
  • cough,
  • a sneeze, and
  • general malaise.

Then, you'll develop a fever, and as the coronavirus multiplication goes on, you'll become fatigued easily and have trouble breathing.

You may have diarrhea, but not everybody does.

If you're in the 80% who does well with coronavirus, you won't feel well for a few days, but eventually your immune system is capable of stopping the coronavirus multiplication and you recover without any further problems. It may take you a week or two to really feel up-to-par.

Even though you're getting rid of the virus, you're still going to have some lingering fatigue.

  • To say that you've recovered from coronavirus takes two tests 24 hours apart that are viral negative for COVID-19. Then you can be relatively sure you are not passing the coronavirus on to anyone else.

Some of the 16% to 20% who get severe coronavirus symptoms, especially the cough and chest discomfort, will do fairly well just by getting oxygen. It may take them longer to recover afterward.

There are others who will need more intensive care for coronavirus, and may need an ICU bed. They might need: 

  • high-flow oxygen or
  • intubation to use a breathing machine.
  • The people who will require breathing assistance with a ventilator is about 5% of all infected patients.

Their symptoms will be:

  • Oxygen blood saturation falling from normal to below 90, and it will continue to go down.
  • Severe discomfort and inability to move much; they may not be able to get out of bed.
  • On a chest X-ray, you'll see little round, fluffy areas that are produced by the coronavirus infection, they're like globs 

When you see those globs, you know that area of the lung is not being oxygenated.

What happens with these patients who are very ill, it's a race between the coronavirus cutting down the oxygen supply and the patient's ability to fight it off. If the patient is otherwise compromised, they might be fighting a losing battle.

For example, Kirkland Nursing Home in Seattle had a population of 108 and 26 died of COVID-19 coronavirus. If you take 26 and divide it by 108, that's a 24% death rate. That's an example of what happens when these populations are compromised and exposed to COVID-19.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD; professor of emergency medicine at University of Texas Medical Branch, retired emergency room clinician, and doctor of Microbiology.