It has been 30 days since Preeti Das got discharged from the hospital after recovering from COVID-19. A month later, she still struggles to speak for long without coughing intermittently.
“My throat has taken a toll,” she says.
Hers was a mild case of infection. She suffered dry cough, fever, shortness of breath and body ache, all of which was treated symptomatically in the hospital. When the problems subsided, she could finally return home.
Some symptoms, however, refuse to leave her side even a month after ‘recovery’. “Just yesterday, I was telling my doctor about the constant irritation in my throat. Talking for long makes it dry and causes shortness of breath. I’ve also had these bouts of dry cough and 3-4 good rounds of choking and breathlessness at some nights,” she shares.
Is Preeti’s recovery experience unusual, or is it what other patients infected by the novel coronavirus are also experiencing? What does this mean for COVID-19 recovery and contagiousness? FIT explains.
Anecdotal Evidence Emerging from Around the World
According to the World Health Organisation’s analysis based on preliminary data, the median recovery time from COVID-19 in mild cases is about two weeks from the onset of symptoms, and about three to six weeks for severe or critical cases.
Could Preeti’s experience, then, be considered rare?
Not quite. Reports have suggested that persisting symptoms are being observed in several patients globally. Some of them encounter chills and exhaustion, others go through periods of chest pain and coughs, and a few others may also experience heart palpitations and insomnia for months.
While this may not be the overwhelming majority of all people with mild infections, it still could count as a significant proportion. In fact, groups named ‘#60plus-days’ and ‘#30plus-days’ on the communication platform ‘Slack’ are full of members who have been enduring problems for a longer time.
Fiona Lowenstein started an online support group after she experienced lingering symptoms post her discharge from the hospital after a three-week stay. Writing about it in The New York Times, she said,
Now for patients with more severe forms of infection, a long recovery process is perhaps expected and understandable. In conversation with FIT, a COVID-19 patient treated at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, who had needed ventilator support, shared his experience after 35 days of testing negative.
For those who endure longer stays in a critical care unit of a hospital, long-term impacts on their health can remain on all possible fronts - from their cognitive abilities to their mental and physical health; all clubbed under the umbrella term, ‘Post-Intensive Care Syndrome’. You can read more about it here.
Are Lingering COVID-19 Symptoms Concerning?
For starters, the disease is new and doctors are still only trying to understand its numerous manifestations. As time passes, more and more symptoms of the illness become clearer, along with the confirmation that many patients remain asymptomatic. What we know for certain, therefore, is that there is no single way that the novel coronavirus affects a person’s body. By extension, it also becomes obvious that whether or not symptoms will persist in a patient, can be very subjective and may differ on a case-by-case basis.
A doctor in Delhi, who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, told FIT that except a little bit of dryness in his throat, he has been absolutely fine. “I was mostly asymptomatic during the disease as well,” he said. It has been 16 days since he got back home from the hospital.
In a blog he wrote for FIT, he said,
All three patients we spoke to, therefore, have had different experiences to share. The same is the case for a larger sample as well. The viral load, underlying conditions, age, genes, lifestyles - anything could be contributing to a person’s disease and recovery experience. But just like other COVID-19-related occurences, there isn’t much clarity here as well.
In conversation with FIT, Dr Sumit Ray, a critical care specialist in Delhi NCR, explained that while cases of persistent symptoms may be unusual in mild patients, this trend is not completely unknown, especially if we look at other illnesses.
A person’s experience with a viral infection can be very different from another, which may depend on the viral load or the body’s response. Injuries that happen because of the immune system’s response can take longer to heal, he said. Now for respiratory infections that harm the lungs, the lung damage cannot completely clear up immediately; that is a slow recovery process. In fact, for very severe cases of Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), this 100% recovery may never be possible.
He clarifies that this may not have anything to do with the virus staying in the body after recovery, but just the effects of the illness carrying for long. Contagiousness, therefore, may not be a concern.
“In a nutshell, many viruses cause varied formats of a disease. For COVID-19, some patients seem to have a prolonged impact, but this is true for other viruses as well. We will just have to wait and see the percentage of people who go on to experience long-term impacts from the novel coronavirus”, he suggests.