Is It Possible That You Had The Coronavirus Earlier This Year?

Many people had the flu or a bad cold in late 2019 or early 2020, and they're now wondering if the symptoms were actually COVID-19.
Wondering if that bad cold or respiratory illness you had earlier this year was really COVID-19? Maybe, but here’s why it doesn’t matter now.
Wondering if that bad cold or respiratory illness you had earlier this year was really COVID-19? Maybe, but here’s why it doesn’t matter now.

Now that we’re all hyper-focused on the coronavirus, you might be thinking back on the last time you were sick before the pandemic. More specifically, you may be reflecting on that cold or respiratory illness you experienced near the beginning of 2020 or the end of 2019.

Is there a chance that was actually COVID-19?

The main symptoms of COVID-19 include a cough, shortness of breath and a fever. Additionally, you might have digestive problems ― like nausea or diarrhea ― a headache and a sore throat. You may also experience a loss of smell or taste. You don’t need to exhibit all of these symptoms, though, to have COVID-19.

These symptoms can be mistaken for a bad cold or the flu, especially if you have a “mild” case of COVID-19. It’s also very possible to have the virus and not even notice, as some cases can be asymptomatic or negligible.

There’s evidence the coronavirus started spreading in America earlier than people were really tracking it. Some experts suspect that the first U.S. cases began in January 2020, while others speculate that people may have experienced it even earlier than that.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August estimates “many more thousands of people were infected than were reported” by March 12, 2020. The study authors concluded that there were likely fewer than 10% of infections detected between February and early March, suggesting that it was too late to contain COVID-19 by the time a national emergency was aired.

Lee Riley, chair of the division of infectious disease and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, told Medium that it’s safe to assume a virus had probably been spreading in your community for about two weeks before there’s a confirmed death.

Of course, you may be able to tell if you had the virus before through an antibody test. Many urgent care centers, testing sites and doctors’ offices can take patients’ blood and send it to a lab to analyze for a previous COVID-19 infection. However, these tests are still extremely flawed.

For example, it takes your body anywhere from one to three weeks to develop antibodies from an infection, according to health experts. So theoretically, you could get tested for antibodies and they may not show up on your results yet.

You could also have antibodies appear on a test only to see them “disappear” a few months later. This doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have antibodies against the virus, just that your antibody levels may have dropped, which is normal.

“Once they do appear, antibodies tend to wane after three months,” Steven Schnur, a cardiologist and internist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, told HuffPost in August.

Some people have also reported contracting the coronavirus again after they’ve been sick one time as evidence that antibodies don’t last. But experts say this probably isn’t because a person has been reinfected ― it’s more likely that they never recovered from the original illness in the first place.

Regardless of your antibody status or whether you’ve been sick this year, you should continue to act like you are susceptible or could be a carrier who may pass it to someone else. Because COVID-19 is so new to the medical world, scientists still need to learn way more information about the antibodies.

And if you’ve had the symptoms of COVID-19 recently, it’s especially important to isolate yourself. Experts believe that you’re still contagious even after you stopped feeling sick.

All of this is why experts stress that you should continue to follow the proper safety measures to protect yourself and others from disease transmission.

“For someone to think that they can walk around without proper precautions because they have antibodies is inaccurate,” Schnur told HuffPost. “Whether or not you think you have antibody levels, you still need to social distance and wear a mask.”

The more we all behave like we’re carriers of the virus ― regardless of whether we’re experiencing symptoms, feel nothing, have antibodies or just think we had it in the past ― the more impact we can have on slowing the spread.

This story has been updated from its original publication to reflect new information about COVID-19. Experts are still learning about the coronavirus, so guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.


A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus