40 Percent of Coronavirus Patients Have This One Symptom for Weeks

If you've experienced a lingering cough, it turns out you're not alone.

We classify coronavirus cases as one of three categories—mild, moderate, or severe—and at face value, these designations may seem simple enough. Yet according to a new study out of Emory University School of Medicine, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, many patients with milder cases of coronavirus have experienced enduring symptoms. Though these patients were able to avoid the hospital and other serious medical intervention, over 40 percent reported one lingering coronavirus symptom three weeks after they first got sick: they still had a persistent cough.

In addition to this discovery, the study found that other symptoms persisted to a lesser degree after three weeks of illness. Among 272 virus-positive participants, 24 percent struggled with shortness of breath during physical exertion, 23 percent hadn't seen the return of their sense of smell and taste, and an additional 23 percent were still experiencing sinus congestion. While the majority of known coronavirus patients tend to recover within 14 days, this new data indicates that for some, there may be no easy resolution to the illness—and no clear-cut timeline for recovery.

man clutching his chest and coughing

This comes as troubling news to many doctors and researchers, who are now grappling with the open-ended nature of the virus, and searching for answers. An article in this week's Washington Post highlights several cases that could currently be classified as medical mysteries: accounts of individuals who have endured their illnesses for up to 90 days, with no explanation or end in sight.

As the authors of the article note, "Post-viral syndromes have been associated with numerous viruses in the past, but until the pandemic, they were considered relatively rare." The Washington Post further explains that researchers remain unclear as to whether extended coronavirus symptoms indicate a long-tail recovery, or if instead they reflect a cyclical recurrence of the illness itself, still thriving in the body. Unfortunately, this latter theory has precedent: three fourths of cases of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are the result of viral or bacterial infection. It is possible that for some, coronavirus could pose a lifelong threat.

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The Emory study highlights one more startling conclusion: it's likely that we're quarantining at least 40 percent of coronavirus patients for too short a time. Health authorities recommend isolating for 14 days after initial symptoms, but this recommendation is based on the notion that symptoms last roughly this long. In light of this study, it seems that 14 days should be treated as the bare minimum, with isolation lasting several days beyond each individual's recovery—regardless of whether that means weeks or months. And as cases begin skyrocketing around the country again, find out if you live in one of 6 States That Are Running Out of Hospital Beds.

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