What it's like to have the coronavirus, according to people who've recovered

No two cases of COVID-19 are the same.

Amanda Capritto
6 min read

COVID-19 has such a wide range of symptoms that you'd be hard-pressed to talk to two people who experienced the same exact thing.

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COVID-19 looks different on everyone. It's not the flu; it's not the common cold. Unlike those viruses, the novel coronavirus doesn't come with a set of symptoms that show up in everyone. Some people experience a scratchy throat; some people experience shortness of breath. Some people get diarrhea and some lose their sense of smell. Most run a fever and experience debilitating fatigue. 

Despite the breadth of symptoms, one thing is for certain: COVID-19 does not discriminate. People of all ages, backgrounds, social and economic classes, races, sexualities and origins can get this coronavirus -- here are the stories of some who have recovered, and not one is the same.

These stories are not meant to scare you, but instead shine a light on what people are experiencing. I hope that these stories reveal how serious the coronavirus pandemic is -- that even the healthiest people are at risk -- and encourage you to follow your state's public health mandates and stay-at-home orders.

Study abroad goes awry

Olivia, who prefers to disclose only her first name, was studying abroad in Paris in late January. She flew back to the states on Sunday, March 15. The following Tuesday, she says she began to feel like she had a cold. 

"I thought nothing of it and figured it was from the travel, since the only symptoms I had were congestion and a headache," Olivia tells CNET. "The next day I started feeling worse, but still hadn't shown any of the major signs of [the coronavirus] until I woke up at 3 a.m. Thursday morning and I was running a 100.2 fever." 

Olivia's symptoms quickly progressed at that point, and she soon felt as if she had the flu: body aches, chills, extreme fatigue and a fever up to 102 degrees. At some point between the Tuesday when she first began to show symptoms and the following Thursday, Olivia also lost her sense of taste and smell, and thus lost her appetite. 

She got tested on Saturday, March 21. 

"I started to feel better over the next couple of days, my fever broke, and I was able to get up and move around and started to feel like myself," Olivia says, with the congestion and loss of taste and smell the only lingering symptoms.  

"Now, just a little over two weeks since I started seeing symptoms, I consider myself to have completely recovered," she says. "I remained quarantined the entirety of my two weeks being sick and maintained limited contact with my family as well."

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It started as a cough

Looking back, Lauren Rowello, a freelance writer, says the first sign was minor coughing in her children. Her youngest had one day of fever, but nothing seemed serious. 

"I vaguely remember my spouse also coughing and not feeling great, but that seems like so long ago," Rowello tells CNET. "We're in New Jersey. My spouse commutes a few times per week to NYC and travels throughout the US for work as well," she says, adding that her spouse is likely patient zero for their family. 

Rowello didn't realize she had COVID-19 until a minor cough progressed to bronchitis and eventually led to pneumonia. Her cough turned into hacking and wheezing -- she was spitting up mucus and experiencing shortness of breath. This all happened within a matter of days. 

Because the difference between bronchitis and pneumonia can sometimes be tricky to spot, Rowello had to get a chest x-ray.

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"I should have followed the trail of symptoms and illness through my house, but I didn't expect any of it to be a big deal -- especially since everyone else dealt with it so easily," Rowello says. "The severity of my symptoms seemed to come out of nowhere and progressed so fast that I didn't have much time to react to them."

Rowello's doctor put her on steroids to treat the inflammation and counteract her overwhelming immune response. She was also put on multiple medications for breathing assistance. Three weeks later, she's still coughing -- although infrequently -- and dealing with fatigue.  

"I'm mostly back to normal -- working, cooking and doing some child-rearing again -- but I'm constantly exhausted and still dealing with some breathing issues," she says. "I'm still taking multiple medications to assist with that."

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An entire month of extreme fatigue

Dr. Tracy Gapin, a board-certified urologist and mens' health specialist, is still not feeling 100% himself four weeks after he first developed coronavirus symptoms. 

One Friday night in early March, Dr. Gapin was at home watching TV with his wife. Out of nowhere, he suddenly developed "shaking chills." His skin began to hurt and he was running a fever of 100. 

Luckily for Dr. Gapin, those were the worst of his symptoms. Prior to breaking out in chills, he experienced night sweats a couple of times, which he thinks may be related. At the time, though, he didn't pay it any mind because he felt fine otherwise. 

He ran a fever for only one day and had no respiratory symptoms whatsoever -- no coughing, no wheezing, no mucus gunkiness in the chest. 

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Since that Friday night with the chills, Dr. Gapin says he's been dealing with a particularly intense, persistent fatigue. "This isn't simply being tired," he says, "but it's a dense brain fog that has really limited my cognitive function … I've had to take multiple naps on some days to get through the day."

Still, he feels fortunate that his symptoms were mild overall.

Dr. Gapin believes that everything he practiced before the coronavirus outbreak, and everything he preaches to his patients, is actually what saved his life -- that his habit of optimizing immunity prevented his case of COVID-19 from progressing to severity or fatality.  

"Every aspect of my health was really a big part in my getting over this virus," he says. "Immune optimization, hormone health, nutrition, fitness -- all of it is important." 

Interestingly, Dr. Gapin notes, his wife, two children and 70-year-old mother-in-law -- all of whom he was around before developing symptoms -- had no signs of the coronavirus. Gapin says he assumes they are all asymptomatic carriers, a stark reminder that anyone can have COVID-19 and not even know it

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Sharing COVID-19 stories online

Many people who have had COVID-19 and recovered are sharing their stories online. People share for different reasons -- to enlighten the public about what it's like to have coronavirus, to explain that everyone is at risk for the virus, to encourage people to stay home. Here's a collection of stories about the coronavirus that recovered patients have shared online. Interpret them how you will. 

Though the medical community says that the coronavirus generally causes more severe illness among elderly and immunocompromised folks, a 22-year-old woman shared her harrowing experience with contracting coronavirus.

While people with compromised immune systems are at great risk of contracting the coronavirus, young people who are otherwise healthy can and have been infected. This 31-year-old reporter shares his experience with it.

Anyone can be infected and the symptoms can be harsh even if you are otherwise totally healthy, as this historian shared on Twitter.

Chris Cuomo, a CNN host and the brother of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, contracted the coronavirus. He has been sharing his experience "fighting the beast" on an almost daily basis from his basement. He is still in the midst of the worst parts of COVID-19, with fevers, sweats, breathing problems, intense fatigue and even hallucinations.

Deciphering COVID-19

This virus is protean in nature, Dr. Michael Hall, a physician who has formed a working relief group with World Health Organization colleagues and Third Wave Volunteers to fight the coronavirus in the southern US states and Caribbean, tells CNET. 

"It displays in each individual a myriad of signs and symptoms," Dr. Hall explains. "It's very stealthy and takes two to 14 days after exposure to display signs of infection." The early signs are "quite profound and very pathologic," he says, noting that anosmia -- loss of smell -- is apparently very common.

Other signs of infection can include nasal congestion and headaches, which may be mild to severe in nature. A cough -- typically dry, like a tickle in the throat -- and fever are also common, Hall says. Gastrointestinal upset, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, is on the symptom list, too.

Dr. Hall, who's treated patients with COVID-19, says the duration of illness seems to be rather long, and at some point, many people develop a feeling of "lung burn." He equates this to what you might feel when breathing at a very high altitude. 

COVID-19, in short, is tricky -- advice, guidelines and public health mandates keep changing and are expected to continue changing.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.