The major symptoms of COVID-19 are well-documented, and – nearly a year-and-a-half after it began its inexorable spread throughout the world – well-known: fever or chills, a persistent cough, difficulty breathing, body aches, a sore throat and a runny nose.
But people have been affected in other ways by the virus, exhibiting symptoms that might have pointed medical professionals in a different direction before COVID-19 changed the way we live, work and play.
Take, for instance, the loss of taste and smell, somewhat unusual symptoms before 2020 but fairly common problems since COVID reared its ugly head, according to Marie Neilsen, M.D., a family medicine and primary care specialist with Roper St. Francis Healthcare.
“Often it’s ‘my morning coffee just didn’t smell like anything,’” Dr. Neilsen said. “I haven’t seen that with a lot of other things. In 2021, I immediately think of COVID, but, in January 2020, I would have said something different.”
She pointed out that 60% to 70% of COVID patients must do without their sense of taste and smell after they recover from the virus, usually for about a week but occasionally two or three times longer than that.
An extended bout of fatigue is another unexpected effect of COVID. Dr. Neilsen said the patients who are hit hardest by the virus might not feel like they have completely recovered for five or six months. By contrast, those who suffer from the flu usually are back to normal within around 10 days.
“It’s unique to COVID that we’re seeing this,” Dr. Neilsen said.
Other unusual symptoms associated with COVID-19 include tinnitus – a ringing in the ears – as well as blood clots and digestive problems such as nausea, diarrhea and loss of appetite.
“It’s ordinarily a respiratory illness, but it can affect the digestive system. Fewer than half the people with COVID have digestive issues, but sometimes it’s the main thing. COVID has unique effects on the nervous system and the digestive track, as well as on the kidneys, and it also impacts how we form blood clots,” Dr. Neilsen said.
She added that some people with COVID suffer from depression but indicated that there’s a possibility that more than a year of hunkering down in your house and not seeing friends and family members might also be responsible for mental health issues.
“Is it the virus or dealing with the quarantine or the stress of being told you have the virus?” she asked. “The quarantine is part of it. We’re still trying to understand the impact of the virus on our mental health and on depression.”
One of the most interesting side effects of COVID-19 Dr. Neilsen has seen is something now known as “COVID toes.” She said some patients have a purplish discoloration of their feet, sometimes accompanied by a small amount of swelling. It doesn’t seem to be painful, she said, but it can last for a few weeks or even longer.
“It’s fairly unique and different, but it can be a very good clue as to what’s going on,” Dr. Neilsen said.
After nearly a year-and-a-half, medical professionals are becoming more proficient at recognizing the possibility that a patient might be suffering from COVID-19. However, in addition to the obvious symptoms, other red flags are being raised.
“It’s different than our experience with other viruses,” Dr. Neilsen said. “People have reported an array of interesting things. It’s easier to figure out now than it was a year ago. On the other hand, what we’ve also learned is that such a variety of people can present with unique symptoms that we might be able to attribute to the virus.”
Has there been any upside to the COVID-19 pandemic? Maybe, Dr. Neilsen pointed out. She said the pandemic has given medical professionals a better understanding of how the immune system works and why some people are hit hard by COVID-19 while others have no symptoms at all.
“It will help us understand more about autoimmune diseases and other diseases that have been prevalent and increasing,” she remarked.
She added that COVID-19 has given patients a better understanding of what they need to do to remain healthy, lessons that will help them avoid the virus and other health hazards now and in the future. Good nutrition and lots of rest, along with frequent hand washing, wearing a mask and social distancing, all have played major roles in vastly reducing the number of cases of the flu this year.
“How do we do things differently so we can reduce the spread of infections in our communities?” Dr. Neilsen asked. “For some people, this has been a reminder to be a little more cognizant of their health.”
“It’s been a very interesting year in health care,” she added. “We’re still learning more about this virus.”
By Brian Sherman