Pay special attention to that cough this spring. It might not be allergies.
Experts expect many Americans to catch the new coronavirus over the next few weeks and months. Limiting the spread — and not overwhelming the local hospital system — may hinge, in part, on knowing what symptoms look like, and how to manage your own case.
Know the symptoms
A first essential step is to know the symptoms most commonly linked to the virus, and to be on high alert for them in yourself and others around you.
Symptoms in many people can be tricky to pick up in the initial days of the illness — often including body aches, and general malaise, said Dr. Stephen Liang, an infectious disease expert and assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine. It’s not until a little later that more telltale symptoms of the virus usually begin to surface, like a fever, shortness of breath, and a cough.
Track your progress
As soon as symptoms emerge, Liang recommends keeping a diary to track their progression. That includes taking temperature readings and carefully observing whether conditions are getting better or worse, he said.
If symptoms are mild, don’t further crowd hospitals — call your doctor.
“I think getting in contact with your primary care physician would be a great way to start,” Liang said.
The vast majority of coronavirus cases — around 80% — are mild and will resolve on their own. About 15% of cases are severe; 5% are critical and require visits to an intensive care unit.
For mild cases, staying at home and taking “a watch-and-see approach is probably pretty reasonable,” Liang said. If more severe symptoms develop, such as chest pains or trouble breathing, then it’s time to seek medical care, he adds.
Those with only mild symptoms probably won’t get tested, Liang explains.
“We’re in a test-shortage situation where we would love to test everyone if we could,” he says. “(But) we’re trying to save that testing capability for the sickest patients.”
Isolation is of the utmost importance for those who are symptomatic or known to have coronavirus. Those with the virus must remain isolated until 72 hours after symptoms cease, Liang said, and longer if they have compromised immune systems.
If possible, symptomatic individuals should isolate themselves in their own room and use their own bathroom, said Liang.
“They have to have their own space carved out to maintain that degree of isolation,” he said.
Liang recommends that patients put on a mask whenever they leave the room or are close to others, and reiterates the importance of cleaning shared environments and “high-touch” surfaces, like door handles.
Patients should be sure to hydrate well, Liang said, and can take things like Tylenol to keep fevers in check. The only other keys are patience and continued monitoring.
“There’s not much else to do other than monitor symptoms and make sure symptoms are continuing to resolve,” said Liang. “We don’t have a silver bullet for this infection.”
Cross the finish line
And don’t let your guard down.
Once coronavirus symptoms improve, it is vital to stay isolated for the full 72 hours after symptoms vanish.
Experts say recognizing that requirement is essential. Even if someone might be nearly healthy again and assured of recovery, they can still be a potentially deadly vector to countless others.
“Even if you’re feeling better, think about it as keeping others around you healthy,” said Liang. “That really has to be a societal buy-in. ... That has a bigger implication for the entire community.”
And if any symptom reoccurs? Start over at the top.
“It’s just being really vigilant about symptoms and that there is a really clear trajectory of improvement,” said Liang.
After symptoms are gone, it’s still important for individuals to wash hands diligently, since the duration of how long people can shed the virus is still not completely clear, Liang said. Risks of transmission, though, are greatly reduced at that point.
“We know that the people most likely to transmit this disease are symptomatic,” he said.
Keep practicing prevention. The old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” rings especially true now, with vaccines yet undeveloped and the virus spreading through U.S. communities at exponential rates. Continue social distancing, hand-washing, good cough etiquette, and other steps to minimize risk.
But the next phase of this pandemic may hinge on us all realizing we may well get the virus, too.