This Scary Symptom Is Affecting the Most Vulnerable COVID Patients

This surprising symptom could indicate COVID in elderly patients.

As if the novel coronavirus wasn't frightening enough, some seniors are facing a particularly troubling symptom of COVID-19: delirium. In addition to the virus's more apparent threats to a person's health (respiratory failure and lung damage chief among them), delirium complicates an already confounding and terrifying disease.

A September study from King's College London found that delirium—an acute state of confusion brought on by illness or intoxication—is a key COVID symptom among the frail and elderly. Patients exhibited incoherent thought or speech, confusion or memory loss, as well as restlessness, making it that much harder for doctors to reach a diagnosis by hindering the patient's ability to communicate their symptoms. On top of this, CNN recently reported that due to different immune responses, elderly populations sometimes present with fewer of the better known COVID symptoms like cough and fever. Unfortunately, this translates into some of the most vulnerable patients receiving a delayed diagnosis, if they receive one at all.

The study, which was published in the journal Age and Ageing found that, in the absence of these better known symptoms, delirium itself could help identify COVID cases in the elderly. Using the COVID Symptom Study app, the researchers tracked data for patients aged 65 and older who were admitted to St. Thomas' Hospital in London. They discovered that rates of sudden onset delirium were significantly higher among patients classified as "frail" than patients of the same age who were not. One in five hospitalized patients displayed delirium as their only symptom, and one third of the app users experienced delirium, without cough or fever. This suggests that without an increased awareness of delirium as a COVID symptom, many cases may go undiagnosed.

Rose Penfold, MD, an author of the study, explained: "Older, frailer people are at greater risk from COVID-19 than those who are fitter, and our results show that delirium is a key symptom in this group. Doctors and carers should watch out for any changes in mental state in elderly people, such as confusion or strange behavior, and be alert to the fact that this could be an early sign of coronavirus infection."

But delirium isn't the only symptom that primarily affects older populations. Read on for more symptoms to look out for if you're over the age of 65. And for more on surprising coronavirus symptoms, check out the 5 New COVID Symptoms Doctors Are Reporting.

Extreme Fatigue

Older man bored retired

As CNN reports, older adults sometimes present with symptoms that are considered "atypical" for the general population. "They may sleep more than usual," the news outlet explains, highlighting how subtle these symptoms can be for some patients. Others experience a more marked fatigue or lethargy, making them unable to complete their daily routines. And for more on how COVID could affect you, check out 7 Celebrities With Scary Long-Term COVID Symptoms.


Senior man drink mineral water in gym fitness center after exercise. Elderly healthy lifestyle.

Seniors are more likely to experience dehydration as a result of COVID-19, according to CNN. "One of the main effects of viral infections is dehydration, which the body combats by increasing its temperature, often causing a fever; this means that you lose more water through skin evaporation and even breathing," explains Blanca Lizaola-Mayo, MD, a gastroenterologist and co-founder of SOS Hydration.

Weight Loss

Elderly asian woman on wheelchair at home with daughter take care

Though unexplained weight loss could indicate a range of illnesses, it could point to COVID in elderly populations. Beyond causing dehydration, Lizaola-Mayo explains that "Viruses can also make you lose your appetite (another hydration source) and some may even cause diarrhea, vomiting or both." In advanced-age individuals, a loss of appetite can cause increased frailty, putting them at greater risk for other complications. And for more on what your sudden weight loss may be trying to tell you, check out the 11 Subtle Signs Your Rapid Weight Loss Is Something Serious.


Elderly woman fallen, people helping

Sam Torbati, MD, medical director of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, recounted to CNN his experience in treating elderly patients who "initially appear to be trauma patients" but later test positive for coronavirus. "They get weak and dehydrated," Torbati explained, "and when they stand to walk, they collapse and injure themselves badly." If you or someone you love experiences an unexplained fall, it's worth considering whether they've demonstrated any other COVID symptoms that may point to a diagnosis.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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