What It Means When Doctors Say Coronavirus Symptoms Are Often ‘Mild’

It's important to be mindful of any mild symptoms you may be experiencing. 
It’s important to be mindful of any mild symptoms you may be experiencing. 

With coronavirus cases continuing to rise in more than 100 countries, the COVID-19 outbreak has been officially declared a pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.

As many have pointed out, most people who contract the disease will experience “mild symptoms,” which is good and bad news. On the plus side, the virus is not deadly for the vast majority of those infected. On the other hand, the large number of mild or asymptomatic cases makes the pandemic harder to track and contain.

This is why it’s crucial to pay attention to mild symptoms you may be experiencing and take precautions to protect your health and safety ― and the health and safety of others. HuffPost asked doctors to break down what exactly “mild” means when it comes to coronavirus and what people should know about the symptoms.

What Are Mild Symptoms?

“Mild symptoms refer to similar symptoms that you may experience with a cold or mild flu-like illness,” said Kristin Dean, a board-certified physician and medical director at the telemedicine service Doctor on Demand. “Most people experience a mild form of coronavirus with these symptoms being the most common: cough, body aches, runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion or diarrhea. In some cases, people who are infected will not exhibit any symptoms.”

Indeed, coronavirus can present as a common cold in mild cases. People may develop a low-grade fever, chills, headache, fatigue and malaise as well.

The incubation period for COVID-19 indicates that it takes 2 to 14 days for an infected person to actually exhibit even mild symptoms. Research suggests that on average it takes about five days.

“An individual may think nothing of these symptoms because they do not significantly change or impact their daily lives,” said Eudene Harry, a board-certified physician in emergency medicine and medical director for the Oasis Wellness & Rejuvenation Center in Orlando, Florida. She noted that people could tend to be dismissive of symptoms that may be early signs of coronavirus.

“It includes symptoms that one may be denying to themselves or others because no one wants to be sick ― that’s human nature,” said Daniel Berliner, a physician at the virtual health platform PlushCare.

“Mild” cases of coronavirus can also be more severe than people imagine, however. Bruce Aylward of the WHO told The New York Times last week that “mild” cases in China were not necessarily like a mild cold.

″‘Mild’ was a positive test, fever, cough ― maybe even pneumonia, but not needing oxygen,” he explained. ”‘Severe’ was breathing rate up and oxygen saturation down, so needing oxygen or a ventilator. ‘Critical’ was respiratory failure or multi-organ failure.”

When Should You Seek Medical Care?

Due to the mildness of many early symptoms, it can be difficult to know when to seek medical care for a potential case of coronavirus.

“One symptom that does raise a ‘red flag’ is shortness of breath and/or difficulty breathing, although many people do not have this symptom as early as the other symptoms,” Berliner noted.

A high fever and worsening cough can also indicate a bigger issue that requires medical attention. If you have a history of medical conditions that can decrease your immune system’s response, you’ll want to be extra cautious as well.

“Decreased immunity may be caused by some of the following conditions: being older than age 65, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer, HIV or taking immunosuppressive medications,” Dean explained.

If you fall into one of those categories and are experiencing any symptoms, contact a health care provider via phone or a virtual video visit to talk it through and discuss the next steps. This is especially important if you have traveled to areas with high community transmission or been in contact with someone diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus (even if you aren’t exhibiting symptoms, it is advisable to self-isolate for 14 days after contact).

Conducting initial consultations through telemedicine networks can help reduce the spread of the virus by allowing health care workers to take protective measures to prepare for a visit from a potentially infectious patient. If you’re experiencing severe symptoms, however, call 911 to get immediate medical care.

What If You Don’t Need Hospitalization Or Medical Care?

Due to test kit shortages in the U.S., people who show mild symptoms but haven’t been in contact with confirmed coronavirus patients or visited high-risk areas may not be able to get a diagnosis. But it’s still important to stay home if you aren’t feeling well to help reduce the spread of illness.

“If you suspect you have COVID-19, please do not go to work, school or out in public places until you are directed to do so by a health care provider,” Dean said. “Mild COVID-19, just like other colds you have experienced, will typically resolve on its own by taking care of your health.”

She advised people who are exhibiting mild symptoms to get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and remain isolated from others.

“You can take over-the-counter cold remedies to help treat your symptoms, such as acetaminophen for fevers or headaches, and cough medications to alleviate coughing,” she added. “Since this illness is due to a virus, antibiotics are not effective. Stay in touch with your doctor about changes in your symptoms, and when it’s all right to return to your usual activities.”

Doctors still aren’t certain about how long patients infected with coronavirus are contagious, but one study suggests that those with mild cases are probably not infectious by about 10 days after they first experienced symptoms. Pending more conclusive research, however, it’s best to exercise caution and stay in touch with your doctor.

Avoiding high-risk places, washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, keeping a safe distance between people, not touching your face, and coughing or sneezing into elbows instead of hands are all measures everyone can take to help slow the rate of infection ― even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms. Taking care of yourself is one of the most selfless things you can do in the time of a pandemic.

“If everyone with a sore throat goes to hospital, resources will be used unnecessarily,” said Jake Deutsch, a physician specializing in emergency medicine and co-founder of Specialty Infusion. “Statistically speaking, most people won’t need an intensive-care level of treatment, so make sure those resources are available for people who clearly are more at risk. If you don’t have underlying medical conditions, I’d recommend staying home until you’re not sick. Judge your symptoms and put them in context of your medical problems.”

Ultimately, it’s important to follow guidance from reputable public health leaders like the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The best treatment we can provide is making sure people have correct information and can process everything,” Deutsch said.

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