Disease Experts Expand The List Of Coronavirus Symptoms

May 5, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 8:16 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When the coronavirus first emerged, public health officials said that the telltale symptoms of infection were a fever, also dry cough and shortness of breath. Well, then that list of symptoms expanded to include headaches, chills and a loss of sense of smell and taste. Let's talk about all this with NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Hey, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So if we talk about symptoms - growing symptoms changing, I mean, the first thing I want to ask you is is that a sign that this virus is mutating, which is something that some people had warned about?

GODOY: No. It's not so much about mutations as it is about researchers just getting a clear picture of the many different ways in which COVID-19 can present. You know, earlier information on symptoms was largely coming from patients sick enough to be hospitalized. But as more people around the world are getting infected, researchers are learning that symptoms can look really different in less severe cases. They don't always include cough or fever. Instead, sometimes symptoms can be milder, things like chills or headaches, which, unfortunately, are fairly common to lots of ailments. They're not specific to COVID-19.

GREENE: Well, and that makes me wonder. If the symptoms are common to other illnesses, does it make it harder to know that you have COVID?

GODOY: Well, there's the idea of clustering, which is that some symptoms tend to occur together in people who are infected. So take headaches, for example. They're pretty common in general in adults. So I asked Dr. David Aronoff, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, when a headache should prompt someone to seek testing. And here's what he said.

DAVID ARONOFF: That headache should be something that either is a headache that's new for them or that is sticking around a bit longer than they are used to or is associated with another symptom that may also be subtle, like fatigue.

GODOY: You know, in fact, research coming out of a U.K. project called the COVID Symptom Tracker suggests that headache is an important symptom that starts early. And headache commonly occurs in conjunction with other symptoms - so for example, cough and fatigue - in people who test positive for the virus.

GREENE: OK. So this clustering of symptoms, it sounds like, can be really important. What are other examples of that?

GODOY: Yeah. So data from the COVID Symptom Tracker also suggests that in the frail elderly - so these are people who are over 70 who need help to get around - their symptoms tend to look different. And in this group of people, confusion and gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, they occur more frequently together in people who later test positive. So these are things that caregivers should watch out for in the elderly because they just might not seem like obvious symptoms of COVID-19.

GREENE: What about these really unusual symptoms that we're hearing about? I mean, people losing their sense of smell.

GODOY: Well, so loss of sense of smell and of taste, because taste is really, really closely related to smell, that symptom has actually emerged as a really strong indicator of infection with COVID-19. There's research from both the U.S. and the U.K. suggesting that six out of 10 people who report the symptom end up testing positive for the virus.

So if you are experiencing loss of smell, doctors I spoke with say that alone should prompt you to seek testing. But there's also good news, and that's that people who lose their sense of smell tend to have a milder course of the disease. There's also certain skin conditions that are emerging as signs of infection like chilblains, which are, like, purple, pink or red bumps or lesions in the toes. And they often are accompanied by swelling.

GREENE: Wow. So it really is a disease that can present symptoms in all different ways for all different people who are suffering from it. Talking to NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Maria, thanks for all this.

GODOY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.