What It Means When Doctors Say Coronavirus Symptoms Are Often 'Mild'

Here's to know about mild cases of COVID-19, including how long you're contagious and what symptoms to expect.
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. 

COVID-19 can be an unpredictable illness, with range of severity spanning from symptom-free to deadly.

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 fatal 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. Not to mention the fact that COVID-19 has caused a lot of long-term health problems for many patients.

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 the 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. “In some cases, people who are infected will not exhibit any symptoms.”

Indeed, COVID-19 can present as a cold in mild cases. The most common symptoms of the disease include fever, body aches, fatigue, chills, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea, nausea, runny nose, headaches and nasal congestion.

The incubation period for COVID-19 indicates that it takes two 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 the 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 the coronavirus can also be more severe than people imagine, however. Early in the pandemic, Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization told The New York Times that “mild” cases 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 COVID-19.

“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 been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 (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?

If you suspect you have COVID-19 or have come into contact with someone who does, you should get tested and otherwise quarantine to prevent potential spread to others.

Dean 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.”

Experts believe people with COVID-19 may be contagious 48 to 72 hours before starting to experience symptoms, so it’s best to isolate as soon as you learn of potential exposure.

“Most people with coronavirus who have symptoms will no longer be contagious by 10 days after symptoms resolve,” Harvard Medical School’s health website notes. “People who test positive for the virus but never develop symptoms over the following 10 days after testing are probably no longer contagious, but again there are documented exceptions. So some experts are still recommending 14 days of isolation.”

Wearing a face mask, washing hands, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and social distancing are all measures everyone can take to help slow the rate of infection ― even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms.

It’s important to follow guidance from reputable public health leaders as well. Check out the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and your local health departments. You can also chat with your doctor.

“The best treatment we can provide is making sure people have correct information and can process everything,” said Jake Deutsch, a physician specializing in emergency medicine and co-founder of Specialty Infusion.

This story has been updated to include more information about COVID-19 symptoms learned over the course of the pandemic.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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