What A 'Mild' Case Of Coronavirus Looks Like

coronavirus mild cases covid-19 australiaImage: Getty Images

The coronavirus outbreak has continued to spread wreaking more havoc in countries as governments test stringent measures in order to stop further cases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as Australia's own chief medical officer has maintained that most of the cases, however, are considered mild. Here's what that actually means.

On sheer numbers, the coronavirus outbreak seems large with over 600,000 confirmed cases, but authorities have assured people that most cases are mild. WHO added that around 80 percent of infections didn't feature severe symptoms.

"The most commonly reported symptoms included fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath, and most patients (80 per cent) experienced mild illness," WHO's situation report on 1 March read. "Approximately 14 per cent experienced severe disease and 5 per cent were critically ill."

Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy echoed the stats, reminding Australians that most confirmed cases locally have been 'mild'.

"Eighty per cent plus of people with this disease have very, very mild disease," Dr Murphy said in a press conference on 9 March. "That's probably one of the reasons why large outbreaks developed in countries like Iran and Italy and South Korea, because cases might have seeded from China in January, and they spread in the community without people really noticing it."

That doesn't mean you should be complacent about this — it's still a very serious health situation and while one person might have mild symptoms, the mortality rate, which is sitting around two to three per cent globally, shows it's impacting others severely.

Lifehacker Australia contacted the Department of Health who said the appearance of certain symptoms helps medical authorities understand whether a patient is suffering a more mild or serious case.

"Mild illness is mainly upper respiratory tract involvement and characterised by sore throat and a mild cough," a department spokesperson said in an email.

"More serious illness suggest involvement of the lower respiratory tract and the potential for a pneumonitis. In this setting fever, more severe cough and difficulty breathing (including shortness of breath) may be expected."

While this definition was expected, the criteria deeming someone's sickness as 'mild', 'moderate' or 'serious' is not clear cut and varies between responses.

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Professor Raina MacIntyre, a medical biosecurity expert at UNSW, told Lifehacker Australia there was no specific definition but key factors helped medical professionals broadly categorise illnesses.

"There is no specific definition," Professor MacIntyre said to Lifehacker Australia over email. "'Mild' could be defined as a common cold-like syndrome or less. The presence of shortness of breath should qualify as severe, as this is not something seen with common colds."

Similarly, University of Adelaide medical researcher Monique Chilver said moderate symptoms can differ among patients as they develop mild pneumonia.

"'Mild' cases of coronavirus would be patients who exhibit cold-like symptoms, who could probably push through and resume regular activities if required — reported symptoms include fever, aches and pains and dry cough," Chilver told Lifehacker Australia.

"Mild being the previously listed symptoms and moderate cases going on to develop a mild version of pneumonia."

Dr Katherine Gibney is a physician specialising in infectious diseases at Melbourne's The Doherty Institute and she told Lifehacker Australia the 80 per cent figure being used often includes 'moderate' cases too.

"To be blunt, WHO has said 80 per cent of cases are mild to moderate and they kind of lumped those together so that could be someone ranging from someone with just a runny nose and a cough or a fever... to someone who does have pneumonia," Dr Gibney said.

"The severe things are being short of breath or breathing very fast, or oxygen levels being very low or having a chest X-ray that shows over half of the lung is affected by the infection."

Dr Gibney admitted definitions could be tightened up a little bit further to prevent confusion and potential complacency but she said it works for now.

"It'll be interesting later on when we look at how many people stayed at home versus being admitted to hospital but, at the moment, even some quite mild cases have been admitted to monitor them and keep them isolated to prevent onward transmission," Dr Gibney said.

"Later on, I'm sure those cases will be kept at home and we'll have to reserve the hospital beds for those that really need them."

While most of those infected will only experience mild symptoms, it's important to be conscious of others who might not be so lucky. Figures show mortality rates are much higher in older populations, with Dr Gibney urging anyone with mild symptoms to self-isolate.

"If you get it and you ignore it and you go out and it could just spread a lot further and whilst it might be mild for that person, they might come into someone who's 90 who ends up dying from the disease," Dr Gibney said.

"[It's] about the greater good rather than just thinking about how bad the disease is for yourself."

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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