This One Thing Could Determine If Your COVID Case Will Be Severe or Mild

Doctors may be able to discern your likelihood of dying from the virus.

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A coronavirus infection takes unpredictable paths from person to person. While there are some obvious factors, such as age or underlying conditions, that may put someone at higher risk for a more severe COVID case, even young and seemingly healthy individuals have died from the virus. As a result, many people are left worried that if they were to get sick, their case could take a turn for the worse at any moment. Fortunately, health experts are learning how to discern whether or not infected people will face serious coronavirus complications. According to research, the one thing that could determine if your COVID case will be severe or mild is your viral load. Keep reading to find out how this could affect you, and for more coronavirus news, discover The One Thing You Can Stop Doing to Avoid COVID, According to Doctors.

You're more likely to die from COVID if you have a higher viral load.

A nurse wearing full protective gear shows a framed photo to an elderly patient in a hospital bed suffering from COVID wearing a face mask and oxygen mask
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Your viral load is the amount of virus in your body—measured inversely in Ct values. If your Ct value is higher, you have a lower viral load; if your Ct is lower, you have a higher viral load. A recent December study published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases found that patients with a Ct of less than 22 had more than four times the odds of dying within 30 days compared to those who had higher Ct levels, or lower viral loads.

And an older September study published in Cell had researchers record viral loads in more than 3,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on the first day they were admitted. The researchers found that 40 percent of patients that had Ct levels 25 or below died while in the hospital, compared to only 15 percent of patients with higher Ct levels. And for more risks to be aware of, This Bad Habit Could Increase Your Risk of Dying From COVID, Doctor Says.

You're more likely to be asymptomatic if you have a lower viral load.

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A study conducted by the Nevada Department of Public Health found that people who were asymptomatic had an average Ct value of 29.6—which suggests that those who don't experience symptoms with their COVID case may carry a lower viral load than those who do. This helps correlate higher viral loads to the risk of developing symptoms, which could progress to a severe or even fatal coronavirus case. And for more on dangerous COVID cases, If You Have This on Your Skin, You Could Have Severe COVID, Study Shows.

Your viral load can be determined through a regular COVID test.

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Fortunately, tracking your Ct levels doesn't have to be a complicated matter. Your viral load can be determined by the regular PCR. test that most labs use to diagnose a COVID infection, The New York Times reports. These tests are performed in "cycles," which double the amount of viral genetic material drawn from a patient's sample. If your viral load is higher, the test will only need to run a few cycles to diagnose you. So if you get a positive coronavirus result at a low cycle threshold (Ct), that means you have a high viral load. If many cycles have to be run before a positive test is produced, you most likely have a lower viral load. And for more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Experts say tracking patients' viral loads can help allocate resources.

A young healthcare worker wearing a face shield and a face mask wears a worried expression while touching her forehead.
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Daniel Griffin, MD, an infectious disease physician at Columbia University, told The New York Times that tracking viral loads "can actually help us stratify risk." And this has been documented several times in research throughout the course of the pandemic.

Griffin says knowing the viral load of a patient can help hospital workers mitigate needs between patients by predicting the course of their case. For instance, some patients may only need an oxygen check once a day while others may need to be monitored more closely, as they have a higher risk of complications. And for coronavirus symptoms you should know, check out The Earliest Signs You Have COVID, According to Johns Hopkins.

And new FDA guidance may help prioritize viral load tracking.

Cropped shot of a doctor holding an infrared thermometer and writing notes during an outbreak
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To date, tracking viral loads in COVID patients hasn't been a top priority. But many are hoping that changes with new guidance from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On Dec. 10, they said that clinical labs could consider reporting an estimate of one's viral load alongside their coronavirus infection results.

"This is a very important move by the FDA," Michael Mina, MD, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The New York Times. "I think it's a step in the right direction to making the most use of one of the only pieces of data we have for many positive individuals." And for more on the current state of the pandemic, These Are the Only 4 States Where COVID Isn't Surging.

Best Life is constantly monitoring the latest news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed. Here are the answers to your most burning questions, the ways you can stay safe and healthy, the facts you need to know, the risks you should avoid, the myths you need to ignore,and the symptoms to be aware of. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.
Kali Coleman
Kali is an assistant editor at Best Life. Read more
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