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‘Mild’ COVID does not mean what you think it does

While omicron cases are exploding in the United States, health officials have issued stern warnings about our collective future. The variant is so contagious, "most people will get COVID," Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the Food and Drug Administration, said recently. Two years into the pandemic, it was not the news anyone wanted. So many people are comforting themselves with new evidence suggesting that omicron really causes milder symptoms than previous variants. There is a lot of talk about just getting omicron - and getting it over with.

But it is wrong for many reasons, not least because there is still so much, experts do not know about this variant and how it works. It's also problematic because many people's sense of what it means to have a "mild" case of COVID-19 is really ... off.

Here's what you need to know about what mild actually means - and what it does not.

First, the definition of mild is not bound in stone.

For healthcare providers and lay people, the term tends to conjure up quite different things.

You or I may hear "mild" and imagine spending a few days coughing or sniffing. And we may hear "moderate" and think about being knocked out of bed with a fever for a week. But doctors tend to have a higher bar for when someone is considered to be really sick.

Just look at the National Institutes of Health's definitions. According to the agency, you may have a "mild" COVID-19 case that includes any combination of fever, cough, sore throat, malaise or deep fatigue, headache, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or loss of taste. and smell.

You are considered to be moderately ill if the disease has spread to your lower respiratory system or your oxygen saturation levels have dropped past a certain point.

To complicate matters further, not all healthcare groups or healthcare providers use exactly the same terms. Some refer to "serious" versus "non-serious" illness. All of this is important to keep in mind when reading news reports about mild COVID-19 and thinking about what a case might mean for you or your family.

So you may have a 'mild' case of COVID and not be able to get out of bed.

Some of the terminology surrounding the severity of COVID-19 is fluid, but one thing that is clear is that having mild COVID-19 is does not the same as having an asymptomatic case. Asymptomatic COVID-19 means that you do not develop anyone symptoms during your infection.

Preliminary data suggest that asymptomatic infections are quite common with omicron, although again it is too early to say for sure - and monitoring of asymptomatic transmission depends to a large extent on regular testing.

Mild infections, on the other hand, are found on a spectrum. You may experience a few days of feeling free as if you have a cold. Or you may feel really awful, as if you have a bad case of the flu.

"The big question is, are you able to get home," Carl Lambert Jr., a Chicago-based family physician, told HuffPost. If you can - even if it means you are really incapable of doing anything and you need days or even weeks of rest, fluids and medication - you still have a "mild" case.

"When I talk to patients, I explain that moderate or severe means you were going to the hospital and they had to keep you watching," he explained.

Mild (and even asymptomatic) disease has led to long-term complications.

Another reason to take COVID-19 seriously is the clear evidence that even people without symptoms during their infection have developed long-distance covid-19. Studies from last summer suggested that about a quarter of patients with mild or asymptomatic cases continued to experience prolonged symptoms, such as brain fog, migraines, and fatigue.

Researchers are still investigating the link between mild omicron disease and long-distance COVID-19. Although studies ultimately do not show that this is the case, there is recent anecdotal evidence that people struggle with "mild" infections that have made them miserable for at least a month or longer.

Vaccines protect you from getting really ill.

So yes, a mild case of COVID-19 can knock you out in a week or two. It's not fun and it can be a significant logistical challenge. Being vaccinated helps to ensure that your disease does not develop into something more serious. There is also evidence that vaccination helps lower your risk of developing long-distance covid-19.

Hospital admissions are soaring right now, and there is early evidence from places hard hit by omicron at the start of the current rise that deaths may also start to rise.

But the risk is simply much higher if you have not been vaccinated. Recent estimates suggest that you are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized if you have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. If, on the other hand, you are vaccinated and boosted, you are much more likely to experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.

"The patients who have mild symptoms are usually patients who have been vaccinated and boosted," Lambert said.

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


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