When you have COVID-19 but don’t know it

By The Health News Team | April 29, 2020
Man walking white dog

Ever since COVID-19 began its global spread, doctors and experts have learned a little more about the virus each day — its symptoms, its mode of transmission and, perhaps the most concerning, that it can spread when a person doesn’t show symptoms (asymptomatic).

In the case of COVID-19, some people who contract it have severe reactions, while some have none or very few. This makes the virus harder to contain.

“The fact that COVID-19 can be passed on when someone is pre- or asymptomatic is troubling,” says Dr. Ashika Odhav, a board-certified allergy and immunology doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy. “It means that an individual who feels healthy or slightly ‘off’ can spread the virus to a higher-risk individual who can have more complications when infected.”

In general, the symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Some have reported muscle aches, sore throat, diarrhea, nasal congestion, runny nose, or the loss of taste and smell. These symptoms range in severity. In about 80% of cases, COVID-19 causes only mild symptoms, and it has been estimated that up to 25% of the COVID-19-positive population could have no symptoms at all.

The reason why reactions range from person to person is not yet clear. “Research is still being done to assess why people react to COVID-19 differently,” Dr. Odhav says. “We don’t know for sure. However, we do know who is at risk for dangerous complications if they contract it: older adults and those with certain underlying medical conditions. We need to protect them, and all do our part to ensure they don’t get infected.”

Could it be COVID-19?
Knowing that COVID-19 can present in a range of ways, many people wonder if they could be pre- or asymptomatic. The truth is, a test is the only clear way to know — and with 80% of cases being mild, tests are not always needed.

To further complicate things, COVID-19 can have similar symptoms to other conditions. “During the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are other illnesses such as allergies, influenza and the common cold that can cause confusion or add fears when an individual presents with symptoms,” Dr. Odhav says.

In most cases, those with suspected mild COVID-19 cases can manage their illness from home. And until there is an effective antibodies test — which would detect whether a person had COVID-19 in the past — we simply wouldn’t know.

Keeping yourself and others safe
The most important thing to remember through this pandemic is that we all have a large role to play in protecting each other from illness. Yes, you should stay home if you are sick. Yes, you should stay home if your symptoms are mild. But knowing that COVID-19 can spread when you don’t have symptoms, you should also stay home when you feel perfectly fine.

“Please self-isolate at home,” Dr. Odhav says. “It is important that every individual does their part. In the case of COVID-19, it’s not about us individually. It’s about our families, our friends, our communities — and making an impact across our country and the world.”

Public health officials recommend that you:

Until cases of COVID-19 level off, everyone should act as if they have the virus. Because with this pandemic, the biggest danger isn’t the sick person in containment — it’s the person without symptoms.

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