To determine what exacerbate severity of the COVID-19 among patients without comorbidities and advanced age and investigate potential clinical indicators for early surveillance, we adopted a nested case−control study, design in which severe cases (case group, n = 67) and moderate cases (control group, n = 67) of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 without comorbidities, with ages ranging from 18 to 50 years who admitted to Wuhan Tongji Hospital were matched based on age, sex and BMI. Demographic and clinical characteristics, and risk factors associated with severe symptoms were analysed. Percutaneous oxygen saturation (SpO2), lymphocyte counts, C-reactive protein (CRP) and IL-10 were found closely associated with severe COVID-19. The adjusted multivariable logistic regression analyses revealed that the independent risk factors associated with severe COVID-19 were CRP (OR 2.037, 95% CI 1.078–3.847, P = 0.028), SpO2 (OR 1.639, 95% CI 0.943–2.850, P = 0.080) and lymphocyte (OR 1.530, 95% CI 0.850–2.723, P = 0.148), whereas the changes exhibited by indicators influenced incidence of disease severity. Males exhibited higher levels of indicators associated with inflammation, myocardial injury and kidney injury than the females. This study reveals that increased CRP levels and decreased SpO2 and lymphocyte counts could serve as potential indicators of severe COVID-19, independent of comorbidities, advanced age and sex. Males could at higher risk of developing severe symptoms of COVID-19 than females.