Never Been This Sick: Three Weeks With Suspected Coronavirus
I first wrote this article on March 13, 2020, the 20th day of a mysterious illness that has taken me down like nothing I’ve ever had before. Several relatives and acquaintances have had the same sickness, with the same symptoms: a woman in Denver I know through work, some in-laws in Virginia. A recent essay called A Colorado COVID-19 Story recounted precisely the same symptoms and progress for a man in his 30s in Colorado Springs.
I don’t know if what I’ve had is COVID-19, though I can’t help wondering. I’m in my late 40s and have never been as sick as I was with this illness. I’ve tried to get tested, but the drive-up testing center in town has been overwhelmed. My other option is to go to an ER, but I don’t want to take up ER resources when I don’t need hospital care. At this point, my family’s schools are closed and I work from home, so our exposure to other people will be minimal.
If this is coronavirus, you don’t want it. And if it isn’t, you also don’t want to get this illness on the brink of a pandemic. Here’s what it’s been like for me.
Edit 3/14: I’ve added a post about how I treated it, stage by stage, with home and prescribed therapies.
What the experience was like
It started on Feb. 23. A Sunday. I woke up tired and by midday felt droopy and feverish, with a sore throat. I couldn’t help wondering if I was having a late recurrence of the illness I had in early January, which was perhaps influenza (despite having the flu shot in October).
By evening, my temperature was 103F. I rested all day, took some Advil and went to bed. EDIT 3/18/20: Lots of news online in the past few days reports you should avoid Advil (ibuprofen) for COVID-19. If I had it to do over, maybe I wouldn’t take Advil, but if you have been taking it, no need to panic. See more from BBC’s fact-checkers or Medscape.
On Monday, I felt worse. Temperature of 104F and a raging sore throat. I called the doctor and got a morning appointment. The doctor ran a flu test and a rapid strep test, both of which were negative. She told me to go home and rest, which I did.
EDIT 3/16/20: I heard yesterday from a friend who was in Japan most of February and mentioned that there, the word was that coronavirus symptoms included sore throat. I have noticed that over the past month, sore throat has crept into the list of symptoms, including those listed by the World Health Organization and in this USA Today wrapup.
Over the next 48 hours I felt worse and worse. My throat was incredibly painful and raw-feeling. My tonsils were a deep red. It hurt to swallow and hurt to speak; the lymph nodes beneath my chin and in my neck were swollen and tender, and my neck felt stiff. My whole body ached. I treated it like the flu, with a liquid/soft diet (all I could stand to eat), saltwater gargles and plenty of warm tea.
By Wednesday morning, I could definitively say this was the worst sore throat of my life. I could barely sleep because of the pain. It felt like I’d swallowed broken glass. My husband ran to the store before work and bought some Chloraseptic spray, which helped briefly. Still had a fever and a headache. My nose was clear, but my throat felt like I had postnasal drip when I lay down — but I couldn’t tell if that was because I couldn’t swallow properly.
I called the doctor, who had me return. She did another rapid strep test and took a bacterial throat culture. She offered a prescription for Tylenol with codeine to help with the pain. I told her I was supposed to leave in a week for AWP, a writing conference in San Antonio. She assured me I should be better by then.
At home, I posted on Facebook about my misery and got some more suggestions for home care. Then I started to cough.
Violent coughing: Achievements unlocked
I can’t remember when the cough started. Maybe Wednesday (day 4 of sickness) or Thursday. I felt like I had thick, dry phlegm in my throat. I would cough and hack as if to get it up, to spit it out, but nothing came out.
I took Mucinex to try to loosen things up. It seemed to make me feel better but didn’t get things out and moving. By Friday it was my father’s birthday, but I couldn’t call him because I couldn’t talk without coughing. I texted him instead. I called the doctor to ask about my throat culture, but they hadn’t gotten any results yet.
By Friday night (day 6) sleep was unattainable. When I lay down, I started to cough. I’ve had bronchitis in the past, years ago, when I would cough at first, but I could suck on a cough drop or take a cough suppressant and sleep. Not so with this. For an entire week, I was roaming the house all night: lying down (propped up on pillows), start coughing, leap out of bed, get a drink of water, try the recliner, cough, try the couch, cough. In between, I breathed steam, took cough suppressants, took Advil, took Benadryl, did relaxation exercises. Rinse and repeat.
On Saturday evening, I took a shower, and while I was in there, I had a coughing fit so violent that I vomited. My husband was outside dumping the compost bin and said he could hear me through the closed windows. My little white dog — my constant companion — was so frightened by my sudden barking fits that he would fling himself off the bed or wherever I was and stare at me accusingly.
On Sunday (day 8), I repeatedly coughed so hard I gagged. I start realizing my trip was approaching, but there’s no way I could travel. I was nauseous, from coughing or swallowing phlegm or something. I texted my sister, “I don’t care about the trip, I just want to not die and feel better, if that tells you how I’m doing.”
In the afternoon I went to urgent care. I still had a fever. My husband helped me explain things because my mind was fuzzy. The doctor did another strep test (negative) and prescribed Tessalon Perle (benzonatate, a non-narcotic cough suppressant) and a course of steroids. *EDIT 3/21/20* I learned today that the CDC recommends NOT having steroids with COVID-19 because it can prolong viral replication. *EDIT later* Now providers often do use steroids, though perhaps only for people requiring oxygen.
I tried the benzonatate, but it didn’t seem to do much. I tried Nyquil, but it just made me extra drowsy at night while I was up coughing until 2 a.m., before sleeping nearly four hours. I started the steroids.
Into the second week
On Monday (day 9), I panic-ordered cleaning supplies to prepare for the pandemic and canceled my trip.
That night, I slept almost five fitful hours on the couch, propped up on multiple pillows. Then it got worse. Now when I coughed, I had bursts of incontinence. I know, I’m in my forties, I’ve given birth, but it’s not usually a big problem for me. Not just a few drops, but more of a splash. I started wearing a pad and having to change it.
Tuesday, I felt slightly better and went for a walk. (I normally walk about two miles every afternoon.) Then that evening, the cough returned with a vengeance. My Fitbit shows that I slept 1 hour and 17 minutes. I kept trying to get some work done (I work at home), but my mind was super sluggish.
On Wednesday night (day 11), the same — an hour or two of dozing, interrupted by 2 hours of coughing and trying to calm my systems. My digestive tract was feeling the effects of the virus or my soft-food diet or both. Still struggling with incontinence; it was as if I couldn’t sense that I need to pee. (I wonder if the virus numbs the muscles in the digestive/urinary tract to encourage the body to keep more of the virus inside it.)
Thursday, I called my doctor’s office and begged for codeine cough syrup so I could sleep. By day’s end, they called in the prescription. I took it that night, but I still got only 1.5 hours of sleep. On Friday, though (day 13), I managed to sleep more than 7 glorious hours, propped up in bed on 3 pillows. I’m a side sleeper and missed being comfortable, but far more than that I missed sleep.
Rounding the corner
That night was the turning point. On Saturday I was home alone all day and felt panicky about the pandemic and claustrophobic from two weeks at home, nearly sleepless. Over the weekend, my cough turned more productive and I started coughing up junk. Saturday night I slept again. Sunday I slept less well, but Monday I slept for 10 beautiful hours, including some time on my side, again propped up by pillows.
I was able to give up the codeine syrup (I’m always cautious with narcotics) and rely on benzonatate to calm me through the night. Benadryl seems to help the “closing in” feeling in my throat.
This week, I’ve mostly been fatigued. My sore throat has come and gone, sometimes with an earache, and in the mornings when I check my temperature, it’s usually 100.3.
On Thursday, March 12 (day 19), I felt more congestion in my throat and got worried if it was coming back, so I called the doctor again and had a video appointment. She wrote me an order for COVID testing and I headed to the drive-up test center in Denver. I arrived around 1:15; the center closed at 2 yesterday. I was prepared to wait an hour or two. But the line of cars stretched more than a mile. I went home and decided to try again Friday.
On Friday, the testing center planned to open at 12 noon, and I drove over at 10:30 to get in line. There was no line, just a few cars, and then a police officer appeared and said the site is closed today (it was cold and wet, conditions that would sabotage protective equipment). They are reopening Saturday. The state’s COVID website encouraged people to try to get private testing.
To learn more about testing, I called my doctor’s office. They gave me the name of a far-away urgent care facility. I called the urgent care; they said they are not doing testing and to go to my nearest ER. I called the ER (where they had a COVID hotline active) and was told that my doctor’s order was worthless; they would reassess me, do a complete respiratory panel including flu test (never mind that I already tested negative) and then might test me.
I took that to be highly unlikely that they would test me, given that I am not always actively coughing and have only a low fever at this point. And I don’t want to take up ER resources when others might and will need it more.
** EDIT — this section added 3/20/20 ** The outcome: Getting better
Over the week after I posted the above, I continued to vacillate between feeling a little better and feeling a little worse. My throat got a bit sore again; I continued to cough; my chest felt tight, especially if I bent forward. I’ve coughed up tiny bits of phlegm, but nothing compared to the intensity of the cough and the sense of chest constriction.
I’m writing this on March 20 — Day 27 since I fell ill. For the past three days, I’ve been increasingly myself. I still have a slight cough a few times a day, almost completely dry, but I’m able to sleep and go for a walk. I have enough energy to get through the day and focus on work. I’m incredibly grateful to be well(ish) again!
So was this COVID?
It’s hard to say, isn’t it? I can’t say it is. But I can’t say it isn’t. It’s something I’ve never had before. My experience lines up with:
· Time to sickness: Median time from exposure to illness with COVID is 5.1 days; I got sick 5 days after what I suspect was my exposure — a staycation with my husband at a hotel in Denver’s Union Station, along with rides on the light rail that runs to the airport, and eating, drinking and spending time all over this busy public facility. Perhaps someone who had been contagious had been in our room and every surface wasn’t stringently sanitized; we weren’t thinking like that, just a month ago.
· Symptoms: I’ve heard a lot that the symptoms of COVID are a fever, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. I didn’t have shortness of breath except when I was coughing so much. But I wonder if shortness of breath is common in people with COVID who go to the hospital. Word on the street (and in my doctor’s office) says sore throat isn’t a sign. Yet in the report from the WHO joint mission to China, 18.6% of Chinese confirmed cases reported shortness of breath — and 13.9% reported sore throat. To my mind, that slight difference does not rule out sore throat as a symptom. (I’m not a doctor or epidemiologist; maybe I’m missing something.)
· Loss of sense of smell: [ADDED 3/24/20] News came out this week that many coronavirus patients have lost their sense of smell and taste. This was my experience, too. For days I ate oatmeal for breakfast, but couldn’t smell the cinnamon I put in it. Couldn’t smell coffee. (My nose was almost completely clear.) One sign that I was recovering was the day I noticed I could smell the ginger in the ginger-carrot soup I was heating up for lunch.
· Pink eye: [ADDED 3/27/20] And for still more fun and games: Pink eye might be a sign of coronavirus. The doctor dismissed this symptom, which I had on March 10, a couple days before my video appointment requesting a COVID-19 test order. That day I texted my sister:
· Duration: “The median duration between onset of symptoms and ICU admission has been 9 to 10 days, suggesting a gradual deterioration in the majority of cases,” according to a JAMA update. Days 8 to 11 were the scariest for me.
Have you had these symptoms — especially with a completed COVID-19 test? I’d love to know if that’s what I’ve had — and I wonder if I ever will know.