What to expect as you recover from COVID-19
The COVID-19 recovery process, including how quickly you can expect to recover, depends on whether you have a mild, moderate or severe case of the illness.
Recovering from mild COVID-19 illness
Dr. Septimus says that about 80% of people who are infected with the new coronavirus will either experience mild symptoms or be completely asymptomatic.
"We expect that someone with mild symptoms will recover within a week to 10 days," says Dr. Septimus. "If you're experiencing mild illness, you should expect the recovery process to be similar to other significant respiratory viral infections, such as the flu."
Recovering from moderate COVID-19 illness
For people who experience more acute or alarming COVID-19 symptoms — such as symptoms that warrant a visit to an ER or even hospitalization, in some cases — the recovery process is more lengthy than for those with milder symptoms.
"While recovering from a moderate case of COVID-19, it's likely you can expect to experience prolonged fatigue, cough and even shortness of breath," explains Dr. Septimus. "And these prolonged symptoms can go on for several weeks."
Recovering from severe COVID-19 illness
It can take anywhere from several weeks to months to recover from severe COVID-19 illness, and you may be in the intensive care unit and possibly even on a ventilator.
The illness becomes more severe in some people, when either pneumonia develops or the immune system unleashes a very strong "cytokine storm" in an effort to eliminate the virus. This powerful inflammatory response causes what's called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), leading to lung tissue damage and possibly even respiratory failure.
"If you're recovering from a severe case of COVID-19, it can take some time for your strength and pulmonary function to return back to normal," says Dr. Septimus. "If you spend time on a ventilator, it will take some time to regain your independence to the point where you can go home — and how much time just depends on how much strength you lost and how much damage has been done to your lungs."
Even once you've recovered, you may still be infectious for some time
Once the fever has subsided and your symptoms have been gone for several days, it's important to keep in mind that you may still be contagious.
"There's evidence that even someone who's 72 hours symptom-free may still continue to shed small volumes of the virus via respiratory droplets — although it's unclear exactly how long," warns Dr. Septimus. "In addition, you are likely to continue shedding the virus in your stool for about one to two weeks."
This means that even after you've recovered, you should consider wearing a cloth face covering while out in public or at home if you share it with other people. You should also disinfect commonly touched bathroom surfaces, including the flusher and faucet handle, after using the restroom and washing your hands with soap and water.
There can be long-term side effects of COVID-19
Similar to anyone recovering from a severe inflammatory response within his or her lungs, a severe case of COVID-19 that's characterized by ARDS has the potential to cause long-term lung damage.
"In addition, evidence is emerging that some people are prone to developing cardiomyopathy several weeks after recovering from COVID-19," warns Dr. Septimus. "It's one of the biggest things we worry about in people who seemed to have made a full recovery."
We don't yet know if you can be reinfected with COVID-19
For some types of infections, the body can develop immunity to the particular germ — protecting you from reinfection. But, in the case of COVID-19, it's still unclear whether you can be reinfected after recovering from the illness.
"The hope is that once you're infected with COVID-19, you will be immune for at least some period of time — but we just don't know this yet," explains Dr. Septimus.
Your antibody-rich plasma may be able to help those currently fighting COVID-19
In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment option specific to COVID-19, physician-scientists at Houston Methodist are using an experimental type of blood-transfusion therapy, called convalescent plasma therapy, to help critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Convalescent plasma therapy uses blood plasma from people who've recovered from COVID-19 and transfuses it into people who are currently fighting the disease. The hope is that a recovered individual's plasma contains powerful antibodies that can help another person fight COVID-19 more effectively.
"In a particularly dire situation in which a critically ill patient looks like he or she may not make it, someone's willingness to donate plasma could potentially save a life," Dr. Septimus says. "There's no guarantee that convalescent plasma therapy will work, since this is still an experimental therapy, but it's worth a shot."
- If you have had COVID-19 and are interested in helping others by donating your plasma, please call 346.238.4360or learn more here. Please note that while you don't have to be a Houston Methodist patient to donate, you must have a documented, positive COVID-19 test.
This article was updated on May 29, 2020 to reflect the current state of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.