Coronavirus: How do you know if you have it?

Seems like a silly question, right? After all the terrifying news footage of masked doctors and intubated patients in China and Italy you would think you’d know if you or a family member caught this potentially deadly virus. We all know the symptoms: fever, dry cough, trouble breathing. We imagine the worst: burning with fever and gasping for air. But what if you are one of the lucky ones who get the virus so mildly they barely realise they are ill?  Now there is no testing except for those with serious symptoms, there may be thousands of us walking around spreading the virus undetected. How do you know when to self-isolate and what does it feel like when you do?

How do you know when to self-isolate and what does it feel like when you do?

On Saturday my 11-year-old daughter and I wake up with sore throats and feel unusually tired. No fever, no cough though.  I assume it is the beginning of a cold or some other normal bug but to be on the safe side we alert the friends we’d planned to see and they decide to stay away. My daughter lounges around in pyjamas all weekend and I force myself to do a few household chores but am too exhausted to do much else.

On Sunday afternoon I manage to galvanise myself to drive the kids into town for a couple of hours. My 14-year old-son desperately needs a haircut. I am mindful that we might go into a forced lockdown at some point and I imagined him emerging months later like Stig of the Dump if he doesn’t get seen to now. We gingerly navigate parking machines, doors and escalators, touching as little as possible and passing our one precious little bottle of hand sanitiser between us.

On Monday my daughter and I still don’t feel right so I keep my her off school, though my son attends as normal. It never occurs to me that he shouldn’t as my daughter and I are not suffering from the main Coronavirus symptoms. Although we still don’t have much energy, my daughter and I walk to the local supermarket that evening, for some fresh air and to get a bit more food into the fridge. We are barely able to get anything we need as the shelves are now empty of most fresh food as well as loo roll and pasta. People are really beginning to panic. My son has a couple of friends round after school and they finish off our only packet of biscuits.

On Tuesday morning, relieved to be feeling much better, I get out of the shower and hear what can only be described as a dry sounding cough coming from my daughter’s room. Suddenly my mind begins to race. What if this little bug is actually the virus? Could it be? And how will I know? There is no testing anymore except for severe cases and I don’t want to jam up the NHS 111 number when it seems so unlikely and which you’re only meant to call if you’re having trouble managing your symptoms.

Nevertheless, my daughter claims she has been feeling ‘hot, then cold’, that she has a very ‘tickly’ throat and that she’s been coughing on and off all night (though she is prone to hypochondria, this story is corroborated by her brother, who she’d kept awake). I realise her window has been left ajar all night. Is it just the cold air? Anyway, there seems to be no cause for alarm as she is requesting breakfast and still doesn’t have a fever.

A quick check of the NHS 111 website tells me that if you have either a fever of 38 degrees or above and/OR a ‘continuous cough’ then you and all your family members should self-isolate. ‘Continuous’ means ‘repeated’ apparently. OK, but what does that mean?! She is coughing on and off, not non-stop! It seems we need to err on the side of caution, so I inform the school and keep my son home too. Luckily my husband and I are easily able to work from home so no problems there. Should I put a note on the door to warn delivery people that we might be infectious?

By 11am on Tuesday my daughter appears to have stopped coughing! What?! The reality of our self-imposed isolation status is beginning to dawn on me. Self-isolating is different to social distancing. Ideally, you’re not meant to go out at all and need to rely on others doing your groceries etc for you.

We are going to run out of milk by the end of the day and have very little in the way of fresh food. Having scoffed at the stockpilers a week before I am beginning to realise I’ve missed a trick. We have enough loo roll and we aren’t going to starve…but nor do we have enough of the kinds of things I know we’ll want to eat either (fruit and veg, salad, fresh meat and fish). First world problems, sure, but I’m not quite ready to start eating baked beans and pasta for every meal either.

I begin to question our decision to ‘self-isolate’ but the school seems to think we’ve done the right thing, and so do the friends and family I speak to. Kind friends miraculously find milk, lettuce and eggs and leave it on our doorstep. I feel like a fraud though. My daughter has definitely stopped coughing, dammit! I keep taking her temperature. If only she had one, I might feel better about the growing cabin fever I am already feeling!

By Tuesday evening my daughter does feel a bit hotter to the touch than normal. The ear thermometer reads 37.5, hmmm, not really a temperature but I’ll take it (especially as a normal reading for her is more like 36.8). Maybe it was worth self-isolating after all?

By Wednesday afternoon she is her normal self, bouncing around the house and complaining about missing her after-school dance lesson. Meanwhile, we’ve got another 10 days of self-isolation to contend with. My husband is sure we can go for a solo walk or jog in the park as long as we keep two metres away from anyone. Surely this hasn’t been the dreaded Coronavirus? If so, it was a total non-event. I almost feel like laughing.

And yet…while scouring the internet for more on symptoms I discover an interview with a British woman who tested positive and has since recovered who describes a similar pattern to that of my daughter: sore throat, tiredness, husky voice, a short spell of coughing, a few chills, no real fever. Hmmm.

I check the NHS 111 website again. They have updated the criteria for self-isolation. You should stay at home if you or anyone in your family feels hot to the touch (on their chest or back), no need to take their temperature. And they have clarified further on this ‘continuous cough’ business: if you’ve coughed more than usual for over an hour then that counts. Guess we made the right call after all. 

Of course, it could easily have been something else. I just hope if it was Coronavirus that between us we haven’t unwittingly passed it on to anyone before self-isolating – those friends who ate all our biscuits, the people in the supermarket, the hairdresser, my daughter’s friends at school, maybe my colleagues, my parents who we saw last weekend? The list is unending.

The only way we’ll know at this point is if a) we eventually come down with much more severe and obvious symptoms or b) if antibody detection tests are widely rolled out some time in the future.

I’m hoping for the latter scenario.

In the meantime, we hole up and we wait…

Polly Collingridge is International Manager for Parental Choice and is currently self-isolating with her husband and children.

Parental Choice helps working families find childcare and eldercare solutions to help them balance their career and home life.

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