Tests show headache and tiredness more common Covid signs than fever

Tests show headache and tiredness more common Covid signs than fever

Does UK need to overhaul its Covid symptom list? Cough, fatigue and headache are most common signs of illness, study claims – but they aren’t all eligible for swab tests

  • ONS report found fewer than half get symptoms before testing positive
  • Cough is the most common, but fever and anosmia further down the list
  • Headache and muscle pains are common but scientists say they’re too vague
  • People aren’t eligible for test in the UK without one of the three main symptoms 
  • Cough, fever or lost/changed sense of smell or taste are only qualifying signs 

Fever and losing the sense of taste or smell are not among the most common symptoms of people who test positive for coronavirus, a testing survey has found. 

People infected with the virus in England were more likely to feel fatigued or to develop head or muscle aches than to get the tell-tale symptoms.

But people only with those signs of illness would not be able to get a swab test under NHS Test & Trace rules.

Tests are reserved for people who have a new cough, a fever or anosmia – which is a change in, or loss of, their sense of smell or taste. 

Almost half of people don’t get any symptoms at all, the Office for National Statistics said, and a maximum of one in three get the most common sign – a cough.

The Department of Health has already admitted that it only detects around 60 per cent of people with coronavirus through its testing scheme.

Experts and doctors have repeatedly called for more symptoms to be included in the list so more cases can be weeded out.

A broader definition of who is eligible for a swab might increase the positive rate but it could also lead to huge demand from people who have extremely common complaints – for example, only a tiny proportion of people with headaches are likely to have coronavirus and many more will have colds or simply be tired or dehydrated.

Office for National Statistics testing shows that fewer than half of people testing positive for coronavirus had any symptoms at all, with cough the most common at almost 30% in England

Experts and doctors have repeatedly called for more symptoms to be included in the list that make someone eligible for a swab test – which currently only includes cough, fever and lost smell or taste (pictured left, a woman swabs her own throat at a centre in West Ealing, London)

The ONS report, which was based on random community testing rather than people who came forward for swabs, found that 47 per cent of positive cases had symptoms.

This was similar in other parts of the UK, at 55 per cent in Wales, 47 per cent in Scotland and 38 per cent in Northern Ireland.


Office for National Statistics data for England, between October and January, shows these were the most common symptoms among people testing positive for coronavirus: 


% of people


Fatigue weakness


Muscle ache 

Lost taste/ smell


Sore throat

Loss of taste

Loss of smell


Short of breath



Abdominal pain















Most common symptoms among those who did get them were coughs, fatigue and weakness and headache. 

Those symptoms each affected more than 25 per cent of people who were testing positive, the survey found.  

By comparison in England, 19 per cent of people developed a fever and 22 per cent said they lost either their sense of taste or smell. 

Swab tests were done by people across the UK between October 1 and January 30 and they were asked to describe any symptoms they had had within seven days of the test.

Symptoms of coronavirus appear to have become more common with the arrival of the new variant, first found in Kent, which spreads faster and is now dominant in England.

A report in January found that 53 per cent of people infected with that variant had symptoms, compared to 48 per cent of those who caught an older version.  

Cough, sore throat, fatigue and muscle aches all became more common with the new variant, while the loss of taste and smell became less common.  

Doctors and experts have called for the criteria for coronavirus testing to be widened in the UK repeatedly over the course of the pandemic.

But policy makers must balance the benefit of picking up more positive cases that would have otherwise been missed with the risk that the testing system would become overwhelmed by people with symptoms unlikely to be coronavirus.

Only a small percentage of people even with the three main symptoms actually have coronavirus – currently only about 5.5 per cent of tests taken by members of the public are positive, according to Public Health England data. 

This rose to 18 per cent at the height of the second wave over Christmas and the new year, but this still meant eight out of 10 people who thought they had the virus did not.

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