The classic COVID-19 symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. These were the symptoms first reported, all those months ago, when COVID-19 was just a few news stories here and there.
Since then, as we’ve learned more about COVID-19, the U.S. CDC has expanded the list of official symptoms to include:
repeated shaking with chills
a new loss of taste or smell
The CDC notes that if a patient has a cough and shortness of breath, or at least two of the combined symptoms, they may have COVID-19, and should be tested.
As we learn more, it’s really important to listen to your body, and talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your health, whether you think they may be COVID-19 symptoms or not. In the meantime, if you read about a new or scary symptom, here are some things to keep in mind:
Most studies are of hospitalised patients
“This is a completely evolving field,” says Gavin Harris, an infectious disease physician at University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Centre. “Most of the studies have been performed in hospitalised patients.”
As Harris notes, patients who are sick enough to be hospitalised won’t necessarily have the same set of symptoms as someone with a milder case. There’s also a lot we are still learning about some of the rarer symptoms.
Harris also notes that there is a lot of overlap between other respiratory illnesses, such that no one single symptom is unique to COVID-19. Instead, it’s often the combination of symptoms which would indicate a patient has COVID-19, the diagnosis of which has to be confirmed through a test.
“Fever is not a universal symptom,” Harris says. The numbers vary, but even patients that are sick enough to be hospitalised don’t always have a fever.
People can experience the same disease in different ways
As with any illness, people rarely get ill in exactly the same way. Some COVID-19 patients will have dry cough and shortness of breath but no fever. Other patients might have symptoms such as a new loss of taste or smell, headache, and dry cough, but not experience shortness of breath.
In addition to the symptoms listed by the CDC, doctors are also reporting “covid toes,” where patients with milder symptoms have swollen toes. There are also some reports of neurological symptoms, such as strokes, seizures and mental confusion, as well as cardiovascular issues.
These are all symptoms that doctors have noticed, but that we don’t know a whole lot about yet. Right now, as everyone is in crisis mode, it will still be a little while before we are able to really get a sense of what the prevalence of these other symptoms are. It’s important to remember that what we know is still evolving, and that COVID-19 is a complex disease, which can result in a number of different complications.
You’re the expert of your own body
When it comes to monitoring symptoms, patients know their own body best. “People have to think about what is going on with themselves, as their symptoms evolve, and how that might be different to what you are used to,” Harris says.
If you have seasonal allergies, but you start developing symptoms that don’t quite feel like what you are used to, that might be a sign it might be something else. Similarly, if you start developing aches and pains that don’t feel right, that’s also something to talk to your doctor about, and to keep a close eye on.
“People are the experts of their own bodies,” Harris says. “Vigilance really is key.”
Shortness of breath is a red flag
When it comes to treating patients, Harris is most concerned about one symptom.
“Shortness of breath is a red flag,” Harris says. Shortness of breath is an indication a patient isn’t getting enough oxygen. Although not all patients will have shortness of breath, this is the symptom that Harris finds to be the most worrisome, as this is most suggestive of patients developing complications that might lead to hospitalisation.
As this crisis plays out, we will undoubtedly learn more about the different symptoms associated with COVID-19, as well as what some of these symptoms might mean, in terms of how this disease affects our bodies. Until then, it’s important to keep a close eye on our health, and to do everything in our power to slow the spread, so that doctors like Harris can have the resources they need to keep us all safe.