Spoiler: Don't immediately run to the emergency room if you have a cough.

By Amy Walsh, M.D., as told to Karla Walsh
March 24, 2020
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I'm Amy, and I work as an ER doctor at Westfields Hospital and Hudson Hospital both in Wisconsin. I want to remind you that there's just so much we still don't know about the novel coronavirus, its symptoms—and especially about how many people are ~really~ infected with it.

Initially, we thought that young, healthy people were not hit as hard by this, which is good considering other pandemics such as the 1918 Spanish flu hit people with strong immune systems (those same young and healthy people) the worst. But now a new report shows that up to 20 percent of those hospitalized in the U.S. due to the coronavirus from February 12 to March 16 were between the ages of 20 and 44. We're also learning that as many as 10 percent of the cases we do know of, are asymptomatic, according to another report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. So, forget about the notion that just because you're a 20- or 30-something that you're "immune" to this pandemic just because you aren't "feeling" sick right now.

As far as what I do know about COVID-19? I know that between the time the first coronavirus COVID-19 diagnosis was reported in Wuhan, China on December 31 and the time the first U.S. case was diagnosed on January 20 (roughly three weeks later) there were several opportunities for Americans to take it more seriously and slow the spread.

Lack of testing has given people a false sense of security, rather than an accurate picture of the situation. This means that even our best guesses of how many people have coronavirus right now are low—like not even close to accurate.

Thankfully, most of the public is now taking this seriously and practicing safe social distancing measures (though the behavior of Florida spring breakers should make everyone angry), and state and local leaders have stepped up to implement closings to try to flatten the curve.

Right now that's about all we can do. Until a vaccine is available (in at least another 12 to 18 months) there aren't a lot of things you can do to prevent contracting coronavirus beyond frequent hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, social distancing, and self-quarantining. The latter is especially important because doctors aren't testing everyone; we just can't. There are still state-by-state restrictions over who can be tested because the U.S. doesn't have enough tests available right now (although, state/local governments and the private sector are working on solutions), so you shouldn't be tested if your symptoms are not severe enough to be admitted to the hospital. (Yes, I know that doesn't seem to apply to sports stars or celebrities.)

What does "severe enough" mean in this case, exactly? To be admitted to a hospital, someone would need to have such low blood oxygen due to difficulty breathing that they'd require a ventilator, supplemental oxygen, or assisted breathing device or would be so severely dehydrated that they'd need an IV.

Overall, my best advice right now to anyone who thinks they might have coronavirus (fever, fatigue, dry cough, aches, and labored breathing are the most common coronavirus symptoms I'm seeing) is to act as if you do have it.

If you have mild coronavirus symptoms such as a low-grade fever, moderate cough, and some shortness of breath, do not immediately go to the hospital. You'd be fairly likely to either catch or pass germs (coronavirus or otherwise) to staff or patients, which I desperately want to avoid. Especially in small emergency departments like those I work in, it doesn't take many people in town coming in for non-life-threatening symptoms to really slow down treatment for everyone else who desperately needs it. Knowing or not knowing whether you have coronavirus will not change what I can and will do for you. Here's what to do instead: What to Do If You Think You Have the Coronavirus

The bottom line: Unless you have any of the following symptoms JUST. STAY. HOME: you have a fever of 104°F, you struggle to keep fluids down or are feeling massively dehydrated due to diarrhea or vomiting, have severe difficulty breathing on your own, are inexplicably confused, are so exhausted you can't get you out of bed, or have bluish lips or face. Call your primary care doctor or find a telemedicine provider. He or she will likely have you take over-the-counter meds such as Tylenol (read why France and the UK officials are warning against taking NSAIDs/ibuprofen), Robitussin, and/or Mucinex to reduce some of the common symptoms. From there, you'll want to get plenty of rest, drink water, self-quarantine, and please, please wash your hands.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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This article originally appeared on Shape.com