What It's Like to Have Coronavirus, According to Someone Who's Tested Positive
"While the virus may not seem real or serious to you at home, it's extremely real to COVID patients."
Lately it seems like every piece of news we read is about the new coronavirus, and yet there's still so much we don't know. To un-muddy the waters surrounding the testing process, symptoms, care and isolation practices for COVID-19, we asked Lauren Nichols, a 32-year-old woman from Boston, who recently tested positive for coronavirus, what her experience has been like.
(This is Lauren's story, but people diagnosed with COVID-19, may experience varying degrees of symptoms and may require varying levels of medical care. Please follow the guidelines from the CDC and your local public health officials and call your doctor if you think you're experiencing symptoms.)
Lauren says she first started experiencing symptoms in early March, when coronavirus was new to the U.S. and symptoms were initially described as "cold- or flu-like" (think: fever, coughing, fatigue). She said, "I honestly was perplexed by my first symptoms, as they were nothing like the news was sharing—at least at that time."
Lauren says that, like most COVID-19-positive patients, she doesn't know exactly how she contracted the virus but has some guesses. "Outside of living in the heart of Boston and using public transportation and touching lots of shared public surfaces, I believe that my COVID exposure was work-related."
She works for the government, and several of her coworkers had recently travelled internationally. Her office is also situated directly across from Biogen, a biotech firm that hosted a conference in late February and was linked to dozens of coronavirus cases.
Lauren said, "The first symptom that I experienced outside of fatigue was a very painful burning sensation in my lower esophagus." She says she originally attributed this to too much vaping (she vapes to help her chronic insomnia) and indigestion from a few glasses of wine the night before. But, she says she began to grow concerned after days of increased esophagus pain and an onset of other severe symptoms, like extreme GI issues "including the inability to digest any food."
She said the burning in her esophagus was unlike anything she'd ever felt before. "Doctors kept trying to [brush it off] as a sore throat. I've had strep throat and mono in the past, and this was not a sore throat. It felt more like a severely dry and inflamed esophagus lining," and was more painful every time she took a breath.
What It's Like to Get a Coronavirus Test
She says she knew it was time to get a COVID-19 test when she got winded from stepping on to a stepladder. "I'm generally pretty athletic, so that was a very scary wake-up call that something out of the ordinary was transpiring."
The testing process also proved to be frustrating for Lauren. She says, "I called my primary care doctor who listened to a description of my symptoms, learned of my nightly vaping and told me, 'you're 32, you're fine' and guilt-tripped me for vaping for medical purposes, which left me feeling even more perplexed and somehow reprimanded."
She decided to initially listen to her doctor, but after a few days her symptoms increased in severity so she got a second opinion. Her new doctor immediately classified her as a high-risk patient (due to vaping) with high risk-symptoms (shortness of breath, pain with breathing, etc.), so they connected her with a local COVID-19 clinic and instructed her to come in for a swab test.
She says, "I arrived at the clinic wearing my own gloves and was immediately given a face mask. A nurse wearing gloves and a face mask triaged me immediately and sent me upstairs to a sterile waiting room."
Lauren then answered questions about her whereabouts over the past 14 days, her potential exposure, her symptoms and current physical state. Then, she says, "I was seen by an overworked doctor in full protective clothing who discussed my vitals, asked me further about my symptoms, talked to me about why vaping has made me high risk and gave me the option to not take a COVID test if I felt like I didn't need it."
She thinks her doctor gave her this option because he believed her burning esophagus was due to vaping or severe indigestion, but also because coronavirus tests were so scarce. She said, "I told him that although I felt very bad taking a test, I needed it because I was obviously deteriorating and I wanted the results to be on file should an ER visit be needed."
The doctor then tested Lauren for the flu and COVID-19 with what she says felt like "a nasal swab to the brain." He told her that the flu test would take about 30 minutes, but the results of the COVID-19 test would take four days. She says, "The flu test came back negative. I was sent home with the advice that I needed to immediately self-isolate."
She says, "I eventually got the call that I tested positive for the virus, which at least validated every symptom that my primary care doctor had originally brushed off."
What It's Like to Have Coronavirus
Since receiving the test, the clinic has followed up to check on Lauren's symptoms and overall well-being. She's gone in for a follow-up visit because her symptoms haven't completely dissipated.
Lauren is currently on day 14 and says her symptoms have come in waves and range in severity. "The majority of my symptoms have lasted for 10+ days although what no one (originally) knew about COVID is that the symptoms are truly like experiencing a roller coaster: one day you feel like your worst symptoms are gone and then the next they show their nagging faces again," she says.
She says she's experienced random bouts of sneezing, extreme dry mouth, low-grade fever, nagging dry cough, severe splitting headaches and body aches, dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite, muted ability to taste food, chest pressure, pain while breathing and muscle pain from coughing so hard. She says not much brings relief except for drinking water, resting, forcing herself to eat for energy and extra-strength Tylenol.
She says, "I feel fortunate to have been able to get a test and be one of the 'lucky' ones that can put a diagnosis to their symptoms. If it wasn't for the severity of my symptoms and my high-risk classification then I wouldn't have called for a test because, simply put, the outcome would have remained the same: I would've had to remain home and isolated until symptoms dissipated."
Lauren says her doctor told her she can anticipate 20 or more days of continued symptoms, and her fatigue and lethargy can last for months beyond "recovery." She says, "For expectation-setting that's good to know, and it's truly been helpful in allowing me to 'plan' a timeline."
Aside from the physical symptoms, Lauren says the coronavirus has taken an unexpected toll on her emotional and mental well-being. "I am a very upbeat, optimistic and level-headed person, but the combination of isolation and not having a soul to compare notes with—because let's face it, doctors are learning as they go, a treatment still doesn't exist and so many people are terrified of the embarrassment that comes with sharing their stories, leaving COVID patients to struggle in silence—it's trying to even the strongest of people."
Not to mention, she says, "I thought I was a complete introvert before this, but there's always an underlying yearning to see a smile in front of you and to have that face-to-face, warm human interaction."
What It's Like to Be Isolated From Your Family When You Have Coronavirus
Lauren is a newlywed, so figuring out life with her husband in a small city apartment has also been a challenge. She says, "It's not what you imagine when you say 'for better or for worse', but I feel fortunate to have a partner to help me, because doing this solo would be hard."
Lauren's husband was away on a skiing trip when she first started experiencing symptoms, but when her positive result came in and he returned, she started isolating herself in the main bedroom of their apartment and now only leaves to use the bathroom. They've also completely sanitized their home.
She says she and her husband text or call to communicate, since screaming across the house isn't exactly an option. "He's placing all meals on my bed, 6 feet away from me and I'm placing all used dishes on the floor outside of my bedroom, which he then removes with gloves on."
Lauren's husband doesn't currently have any symptoms, but is taking extra precautions when he leaves their home. "Although he thankfully doesn't have any virus symptoms, he knows that he might be a carrier and that's just as risky of a position to be in." She says that when he goes grocery shopping, he wears a medical mask and fresh gloves, is careful of the surfaces he touches (including his face) and washes his hands thoroughly after removing his gloves.
Why You Should Practice Social Distancing to Stop Coronavirus
Though Lauren and her husband are following CDC guidelines to the best of their abilities, she says it's frustrating to watch people on social media ignoring social distancing practices. "It's beyond frustrating and disturbing, especially as a COVID patient, because while the virus may not seem real or serious to you at home, it's extremely real to COVID patients and the hospital staff that are fighting either for their lives or to save lives daily."
She adds that she's worried about folks treating COVID too lightly because it doesn't personally affect them. "If you won't obey social distancing for your own sake because you think your immune system is impenetrable, then please do it for your families or your friends, or for people like me who know how serious and painful this virus really is. Weeks of symptoms and/or death is really not worth your selfish want to have a quarantine party."