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COVID symptoms in different age groups

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 26.01.2023 | 3 min read

We’ve lived alongside this virus for a good while now, and we’ve all received the UK government’s message about the three key symptoms that point to a COVID-19 infection. These are a persistent cough, high fever and a change to your sense of taste or smell.

But there’s evidence that these symptoms are less common in some groups. We should be aware of other symptoms as they may warrant isolating and getting a COVID PCR test. Researchers have found that differences can exist by age, sex, ethnicity and other health problems. Let’s take you through what we know so far.

What are the earliest symptoms?

Researchers at Kings College London analysed data from the ZOE symptom tracker app, where people enter their symptoms and their test result once they know it. From this, based on data collected in 2020, the most common early symptoms include: loss of smell, chest pain, persistent cough, abdominal pain, blisters on the feet, eye soreness and unusual muscle pain.

Fever features in later disease, but it wasn't a feature in the first 3 days of disease in any age group, according to the ZOE app. This data was collected in 2020, when the original COVID virus and the Alpha (or Kent) variant accounted for most cases.

The ZOE app has also identified possible differences with the Delta variant, which originated in India in early 2021. This is much more contagious than other variants, but is less likely to cause loss of smell and a cough, and more likely to cause a headache, sore throat, runny nose and fever. Research is evolving on this front, as this variant looks set to become the dominant one worldwide.

How does COVID affect the elderly?

Evidence from the ZOE app showed that the over-60s were less likely to report changes to their sense of taste or smell, but diarrhoea was a commonly reported symptom.

For those over 80, diarrhoea, a sore throat, chest pain, unusual muscle pain and chills or shivers were more likely early on.

Eye pain was common in all age groups, but those aged 16 to 39 were more likely to complain of loss of smell, chest pain, shortness of breath and abdominal pain in the first 3 days.

Do men and women suffer differently?

Using data from the ZOE app, men were more likely to report shortness of breath, fatigue, chills and fever in the first 3 days of symptoms. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to suffer loss of smell, chest pain and a persistent cough, based on data collected in 2020.

Does vaccination change symptoms?

The ZOE app team have determined that those who are double-vaccinated had different symptoms to those not yet vaccinated. Vaccination was protective so people suffered fewer symptoms and they were milder. The top five most reported symptoms were: headache, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. Fever and shortness of breath were far down the list, as was a persistent cough, compared to those who were unvaccinated or had only received one jab, where these symptoms were more common.

The ZOE app team suggest getting a COVID PCR test if you've been vaccinated and start persistently sneezing without any other likely cause, as this seems such a common symptom.

  • Information correct on 1st August 2021

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