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COVID-19 timeline, from exposure to recovery

By The Health News Team | January 20, 2022
Positive COVID-19 test

With the latest COVID-19 surge due to the new omicron variant, it’s hard to keep the facts straight, especially as they relate to timelines. From how long it takes to develop symptoms once exposed, to when an infected person is no longer contagious, information can be overwhelming and confusing.

Dr. Jyotu Sandhu, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy, provides answers to your top 4 COVID-19 questions:

  1. When do symptoms start after being exposed to COVID-19?
    If you do experience symptoms, they will usually appear 2 to 6 days after exposure to the virus. However, it sometimes takes longer — up to 14 days — so it is recommended you wear a mask and minimize close contact with others for at least 10 days after the last day of exposure.

    Both the severity and duration of symptoms vary from person to person depending on an individual's immune response. Typically, symptoms are worse in the first 3 to 4 days and then tend to decrease thereafter.

  2. Once exposed, how long does it take to be contagious?
    A person with COVID-19 may be contagious 48 hours before starting to experience symptoms. This is why it’s so important to quarantine if you think you were exposed to COVID-19 and get tested 5 days after exposure or 1 to 2 days after symptom onset. Sometimes a person may not experience symptoms at all. Yet, if they have been exposed, they could still be contagious and should follow the same protocol.

    If you were exposed, whether you have symptoms are not, you should get tested. You can take an at-home rapid antigen test if you have access to one. It’s important to note that these tests have a low sensitivity but high specificity. Test sensitivity is how well it can identify coronavirus infections. Test specificity indicates the ability of the test to correctly identify patients that do not have the virus. So, if you test negative with an at-home test, it is recommended to follow it up with a PCR test to confirm you’re in the clear.

  3. When is a person most contagious?
    People are most contagious early in their infection, especially from 1 to 2 days before symptom onset and 3 to 4 days afterward. The omicron variant and its subvariants are highly transmissible and thought to be even more contagious than previous variants.

    If someone you live with tests positive, they should remain isolated from everyone else in the household as much as possible — especially during that early, most contagious period. Washing your hands frequently and wearing masks is also recommended.

  4. How long is someone contagious?
    The current data we have available show patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 are much less likely to be infectious by 5 days after infection and very unlikely to be infectious by 10 days after infection. However, one person's infectious period can differ from another's and the virus can still be spread whether they develop symptoms or not.

The best protection against infection
According to Dr. Sandhu, the omicron variant is highly transmissible, and the best protection continues to be vaccination. He encourages everyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine and obtain the COVID-19 booster when eligible.

Additionally, wearing masks in indoor public places is key, even among people who are fully vaccinated. And it is important to follow testing recommendations, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and stay 6 feet away from others who are sick or may be sick.

Get the latest COVID-19 information on vaccines, testing, getting care and more.

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