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Until recently, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only listed three main symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus: fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
But now, the federal agency has updated its list of symptoms to include chills (sometimes with repeated shaking), headaches, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, and muscle pain.
Muscle pain (a.k.a. myalgia to the medical community) seems surprising—after all, COVID-19 is a respiratory virus and body aches can be caused by a slew of factors outside of the illness. Here, doctors break down what muscle pain caused by the novel coronavirus feels like, how common it is, and when you should see your doctor.
Is muscle pain a common symptom of the novel coronavirus?
The CDC doesn’t say how often this occurs, but research suggests it’s more common than most people realize. A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) that was published in February analyzed nearly 56,000 cases of COVID-19 in China, and found that nearly 15% of patients experienced muscle aches and pains.
It’s far less common than people who had a fever (87.9%) and dry cough (67.7%) but slightly more common than having a sore throat (13.9%), headache (13.6%), and chills (11.4%).
Why does the novel coronavirus sometimes cause muscle pain?
This symptom isn’t exactly unique to COVID-19. “Many viral infections can cause muscle pain,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Muscle pain caused by viral infections, including COVID-19, can happen after a virus stimulates your immune system. The muscle aches and pains are “a result of cells of the immune system releasing interleukins, which are proteins that help in the fight against invading pathogens,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. Basically, when you get an infection like COVID-19, your body works hard to fight the virus, and sets off an inflammatory response that can result in muscle aches and pains.
What does muscle pain due to COVID-19 feel like?
It’s usually pretty different than, say, how you’d feel after a hard bout of exercise. “The pain from working out tends to go away after a few hours, but can persist for days with COVID-19,” Dr. Watkins says.
Where you experience the pain can vary, too. Dr. Adalja says it tends to be “generalized,” meaning you can feel achy all over—but Dr. Watkins adds that some people with COVID-19 have experienced muscle pain that sticks around the lower back.
If you feel aches after you worked a particular muscle group during a workout, your pain is likely due to just that. But if you suddenly develop intense muscle pain, seemingly out of nowhere, it could be due to a condition known as rhabdomyolysis, Dr. Adalja says, which is a breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle that can lead to kidney damage. COVID-19 can cause this complication, he says, but it’s rare.
For most people dealing with the coronavirus, “the muscle pain usually isn’t incapacitating,” Dr. Watkins says.
Of course, if you have muscle pain, it doesn’t automatically mean you have COVID-19.
Muscle pain can be a symptom of an injury, stress, or simply working a muscle you haven’t used much lately. If you feel generally OK otherwise, you’re probably not dealing with COVID-19, Dr. Adalja says.
But if you have muscle pain along with a fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms linked to the novel coronavirus, you should call your doctor to discuss how you’re feeling—especially if your muscle pain is making you feel really uncomfortable or seems to be getting worse.
“Most of the time, people get generalized achy muscles that you can have with any kind of viral infection, and it goes away as you recover from the virus,” Dr. Adalja says. “But if it’s focal, meaning it’s just in your leg or other area of your body, or if your urine gets dark (which can be a sign of kidney damage), call your doctor.”
He or she will be able to determine if you qualify for a COVID-19 test and guide you on how to treat your symptoms at home if your illness is considered mild. In general, Dr. Watkins recommends taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help ease the pain, as well as getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
Unfortunately, muscle pain from COVID-19 tends to stick around for a bit. “It persists for one to two weeks in many cases,” Dr. Watkins says.
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Korin Miller Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more.
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