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Mild symptoms of COVID-19: what symptoms can you expect and for how long are you going to be ill?

With very few people given access to testing for covid-19, those of us experiencing mild symptoms are left wondering if we have the virus and just how concerned we should be. If it is coronavirus, the questions on all our minds are, what symptoms can you expect and for how long are you going to be ill?

I am sharing with you my experience, what I have learnt from this and from other people (friends and family) who had covid-19, and adding a bit of the knowledge from scientific publications. As a scientist interested in the effects of inflammation on the brain and the body myself, I have also a professional interest in this topic!

It was mid-March when I started to have a dry annoying cough. Being a psychiatrist, the first thing I thought was that I was nervous and worried about covid-19 and so I had developed a nervous cough…

However, a couple of days later my temperature went up and I started to feel extremely fatigued — I quickly realized this could not possibly be just my anxiety.

My temperature was not very high, and it has never gone above 38°C, but the extreme feeling of exhaustion and the aches I was experiencing reminded me of times when I had a very high fever. The glands in my neck felt very swollen for the few the first few days and I had a feeling of tightness in my chest.

I remember at that time trying to read about the experience of other people who were suffering with covid-19 and coming across the interview of Dr Clare Gerada describing a very bad and painful sore throat in the first few days. After a few days, I developed strong nausea and for a couple of days I could hardly eat.

At around days 5–6, I found myself so physically drained that I could hardly sit up in bed and I had the feeling I was fainting, even if I was just laying down on my bed.

About 1 week after the first symptoms I completely lost my sense of smell, my nose was not blocked andI could breathe easily from my nose, but I could not smell anything at all, not even the strongest smells. This had never happened to me before and it felt very strange.

The first 10–13 days were the toughest and although my temperature was not high, it was always about 37.1.-37.4 C so not really my normal temperature. The feeling of physical exhaustion and a feeling of tightness on my chest were the main issues during the second week. My cough was not very bad initially and it felt gradually improving in the first week but then became again worse around day 10; although gradually improving over time, it took nearly 5 weeks to get over it.

Luckily my strength started to come back after 2 weeks and I started to go back very slowly to my routine, trying not to push myself too much. When trying to play football with my daughter in the third week, I could not last more than 2 minutes before becoming breathless and having to sit down. Now, I am not a very fit woman, but this was not normal for me, and it felt like my lungs still needed more time to recover.

Another symptom I developed after 1–2 weeks was severe headaches and vertigo; however, I usually suffer with these symptoms so these may not be specific for everyone who is affected by covid-19 and it may just be that since your body is weakened by the virus, some symptoms you are more prone to experience are re-exacerbated.

Other people tested positive for covid-19 experienced severe headache or dizziness for few days, and indeed from scientific publications these have also been reported in a small percentage of patients in China. In particular, in a paper published in JAMA Neurology, focusing on patients hospitalized in China for COVID-19, the most common neurological symptoms reported were dizziness (in 17% of their patients) and headache (in 13% of their patients).

In another study, patients also reported gastro-intestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea which appears to be associated with longer duration of symptoms and viral clearance, which means the virus may stay in the body a bit longer than in those with only respiratory symptoms.

Most of the people I have been in touch with and who were tested for covid-19 had high temperature which lasted sometimes over 1 week, in some cases until day 12–13, and this is also similar to what you see in publications from the data in China.

From what you read from scientific publications, possible critical days go from day 6 to day 10 from the onset of the symptoms, as this is the range of days where people started to get admitted to hospital for breathing difficulties or in the worse cases transferred to the intensive care unit.

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The psychological pressure you feel while you develop these symptoms is very high as what you read from the newspaper is extremely scary. But, the truth is that the majority of people will get over this without ending up in hospital and by taking good care of yourselves, by resting, drinking plenty of water/fluids, and taking paracetamol even if your temperature is not extremely high.

I extremely appreciate how difficult it is to understand when you should contact 111 or your GP as one of the main messages we get is to contact them if you have difficulty breathing. You also do not want to put pressure on the NHS with all we hear about the healthcare professionals being overwhelmed.

That being said, GP practices are still working and GPs can do phone consultations that could be very helpful in this situation, so I would advise to contact your GP or 111 if you are struggling and if you are not sure whether you need to be seen or go to hospital.

I think my message here is to try to not feel too anxious if you are starting to experience covid-19 symptoms and to take things one day at the time, knowing that it may take longer than a week to recover and maybe more than 2 weeks to get back to your normal self. Some recent newspaper articles have described symptoms lasting many weeks.

But the most important thing is to take care of yourself and ask for help if you feel you are struggling.

I have a little disclosure to make here… I have never been tested for covid-19 so I cannot say for sure that I had covid-19 and I guess most of you reading this will be probably in a similar situation. However, I hope that sharing my experience and what I have heard and read about it may help some of you struggling to find some answers and some reassurance about what you are experiencing.

Let’s try to use this time to learn about taking better care of ourselves and of the world around us, and to bring with us what we have learnt to the future… a future world where covid-19 will be no more a threat to anyone.


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