By now most of us know the main symptoms of COVID-19: a fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
But doctors are noticing something strange in older coronavirus patients. They may have none of these signs.
Instead, some show an entirely different range of symptoms.
Doctors have found that older coronavirus patients may just feel “off” at first. Their behavior may change. They may stop speaking, lose their appetite, and sleep more. Sometimes they’ll be disoriented or confused. They can become dizzy. They may even faint.
An older person’s immune response “may be blunted and their ability to regulate temperature may be altered,” said Dr. Joseph Ouslander. He’s a professor of geriatric medicine at Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine.
The immune system triggers cough, fever, and inflammation. But a senior’s weakened system may not be able to produce these effects, he said.
Underlying diseases of age can change coronavirus symptoms as well. They can “mask or interfere with signs of infection,” said Dr. Ouslander.
“Some older people, whether from age-related changes or previous neurologic issues such as a stroke, may have altered cough reflexes. Others with cognitive impairment may not be able to communicate their symptoms.”
The British Geriatrics Society warns that seniors with odd COVID-19 symptoms could “slip through the normal screening process” and may be accidentally admitted to “a general medical ward rather than a COVID-19 ward.”
Dr. Sam Torbati is medical director of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He has seen this happen firsthand. Seniors came to the hospital appearing to have suffered from a stroke. They were disoriented and unable to speak.
“When we test them, we discover that what’s producing these changes is a central nervous system effect of coronavirus,” he said.
Since seniors are at high risk of dying from COVID-19, it’s vital that the warning signs aren’t overlooked.
Dr. Camille Vaughan is section chief of geriatrics and gerontology at Emory University. “Someone may be just having a bad day,” she said. But if they’re not themselves for a couple of days, “absolutely reach out to a primary care doctor or a local health system hotline to see if they meet the threshold for (coronavirus) testing.”
6 Possible Coronavirus Signs Seniors Should Never Ignore
If you’re over 65, keep this this list of symptoms handy:
- Mental confusion
- Difficulty speaking
- Loss of balance
- Low blood pressure
- Painful swallowing
If you have any of these symptoms—even if you don’t have the more common signs of COVID-19—call your doctor. You may need to get tested for coronavirus.
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