As COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus, continues to spread across the world, and possibly in your city, it’s important to know whether your symptoms are mild, moderate or severe, and when to seek medical help.
Coronavirus typically causes the common cold or other mild respiratory viral illnesses, but this new strain can cause much more serious illness, even death, in some patients. Previous novel coronavirus strains include SARS and MERS, which affected other areas of the world in recent years.
People at highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include those with pre-existing pulmonary disease, the immune-compromised, infants and the elderly.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Coronaviruses typically cause symptoms that are similar to influenza (the flu) and other viral illnesses. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are:
- Fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
- Tiredness, body aches
- Dry cough
- Shortness of breath
What are mild/moderate symptoms?
The vast majority of patients have mild or moderate symptoms and don’t require hospitalization. With these milder symptoms, you should stay home, rest and avoid contact with others so you don’t spread the virus. Drink plenty of fluids and take pain relievers as needed.
Sometimes patients—usually those who are elderly or with underlying health issues—may develop moderate symptoms that could require some supportive care, such as fluids for dehydration. You likely will have a fever of 100.4 or higher, along with coughing and feeling like you’re so tired that you can’t get out of bed.
Another red flag is shortness of breath, particularly if you’re not engaging in any activity. Any shortness of breath combined with these other symptoms should be checked out.
Even if you’re having moderate symptoms, you likely won’t need to be hospitalized, unless you’re having trouble drawing a breath or are dehydrated. You may be dehydrated if you’re experiencing increased thirst, dry mouth, decreased urine output, yellow urine, dry skin, a headache or dizziness.
However, you could develop a mild form of pneumonia despite having only mild to moderate symptoms, especially if you’re elderly or have underlying health conditions. In that case, you may require hospitalization and antibiotics, along with supplemental oxygen.
Generally, a mild to moderate case of COVID-19 will run its course in about two weeks, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report.
If you have mild or moderate flu-like symptoms, including fever (over 100.4) or cough, please avoid visiting hospitals or ambulatory locations. Instead, call your health care provider to determine the best course of treatment. If you can’t reach a primary care provider or don’t have one, questions can be answered through public health officials.
If you have mild to moderate symptoms, should you get tested for COVID-19?
According to data from WHO, 80% of laboratory confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases exhibited mild to moderate symptoms. The decision to recommend for testing of mild to moderate respiratory symptoms potentially concerning for COVID-19 will be a carefully crafted decision involving primary care providers and local COVID-19 testing facilities.
The decision won’t only be based on your physical symptoms, but will also consider your age, underlying diseases, illness exposures, travel history and progression of symptoms.
Additionally, until testing resources have ramped up to full capacity to test every patient who’s showing symptoms, the existing supplies will need to be distributed to the most severe and risky cases of potential illness to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment.
If you feel that you’re experiencing mild symptoms, call your health care provider and consider increasing social distancing efforts, and maybe even undertaking self-quarantine.
If symptoms worsen, alert your primary care provider as soon as possible to re-evaluate your illness. If your symptoms are more moderate, speak with your health care provider to see if COVID-19 testing is right for you.
What are severe coronavirus symptoms?
In about one in five patients, the disease will worsen, with about 14% of cases developing into severe disease in which patients may need supplemental oxygen. And 6% of cases become critical and may develop septic shock that can lead to stroke, heart or respiratory failure, failure of other organs or death.
Symptoms can worsen in some patients in a matter of days, or even hours.
In addition, in some of the worst cases, the virus can enter lung cells and start replicating and killing the cells. When the immune system creates inflammation to fight the virus, this can sometimes result in a more severe form of pneumonia.
If you’re experiencing severe coronavirus symptoms, particularly shortness of breath coupled with a fever of 100.4 or higher, visit the nearest emergency department. Call ahead to let them know you’re on your way so that they can take precautionary measures to help prevent spreading the disease.
Sophia Tolliver is a primary care provider at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor of family medicine at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.