Have you already had coronavirus without realising?

Catriona Harvey-Jenner, Abigail Malbon
·6-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

While we all would have loved to kiss the coronavirus pandemic goodbye in 2020, here we are in the early days of 2021, and it's still in full swing. As Boris Johnson announces another national lockdown in England, after cases have continued to rise rapidly across the UK and the NHS errs ever closer towards breaking point, it's hard to think of anything but COVID right now.

For many who have already been struck down by the virus, they're clear on exactly when they had it and how long it lasted. But others might not be so sure. It's possible that some people might have contracted COVID-19 without realising, so if you're wondering whether you might fall into this group, how can you tell? Here’s everything you need to know.

Have you had coronavirus without realising?

You could very possibly already have had coronavirus. Dr Dominic Pimenta, a cardiologist based in London who founded HEROES to provide wellbeing and financial support to NHS workers, tells Cosmopolitan: "We are all aware of the typical symptoms of COVID (high fever, dry cough) but many patients (up to 80%) have very mild or no symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur, fever and cough are present in around 50% and 60% patients, respectively.”

Aside from the key symptoms we all know so well, there are some other signs that you may not have recognised as indicators of coronavirus. Such as:

You had recurring headaches

70% of people suffer headaches with coronavirus, according to Dr Pimenta - but it’s not one of the most talked-about symptoms. If you're the type to suffer regularly with headaches, you may not have thought anything of them - but that's not to say they weren't a signal that something else was going on.

You felt tired

If you felt like an entire week had been wiped out due to tiredness, it could have been a sign of COVID. Around 63% of people diagnosed report fatigue as a symptom.

You had a sore throat

A sore throat could easily pass as a cold, or even being a bit run-down - but it actually could be a sign that you have coronavirus. In fact, 52.9% of sufferers have a sore throat, so don't immediately disregard it.

You had vomiting and diarrhoea

It's not talked about as a symptom, but stomach pains, sickness and diarrhoea could be signs of coronavirus, although rarely on their own - only four percent of people were diagnosed with theses as a sole condition.

Other common symptoms are:

Is it possible to get coronavirus twice?

So even if you think - or are certain - that you've already had coronavirus, is it still a risk?

Essentially, yes. Studies have shown that some patients could be re-infected within a year, while a three-month study at King's College London also suggested levels of antibodies that kill coronavirus waned during this time.

Photo credit: undefined undefined - Getty Images
Photo credit: undefined undefined - Getty Images

Dr Pimenta explains: "The problem with COVID is we aren't sure that you become immune to it for a long time after you become infected. Other members of the coronavirus family, that cause common colds, don't seem to produce immunity for a long time (less than 12 months), meaning you could get it every year.

"There have been several reports of reinfection, so it does seem to be possible, although these are very small numbers so far and the individuals had very different reactions. In short, it is possible, but we don't really know what this means yet."

So essentially, you still need to be careful and follow all government advice, even if you believe you've already had coronavirus.

How do antibody tests work?

There is a way to increase your chance of knowing whether you've been infected in the past: by taking an antibody test.

"When you become infected with any virus your body fights back with two different systems," Dr Pimenta explains. "The first is the 'innate' immune system, and is like a shotgun, ready to attack a new pathogen straight away but in a very blunt, scattershot fashion. Meanwhile, the body kicks in the 'acquired' immune system, which is a slower but a targeted, sniper-like attack, built specifically to the invading bug, through antibodies.

Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov - Getty Images
Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov - Getty Images

"Once established, these antibodies stick around, although they take up to a month to reach peak levels after infection.

"The antibody test looks for reaction to these antibodies, by showing them bits of the virus on a plate and assessing whether they stick. We can measure how much of these antibodies stick and that gives us an idea of the number of antibodies. Unfortunately, these antibodies can sometimes disappear again after several months, so it's unclear how useful these tests are to the public at this point in time.

Getting hold of an antibody test isn't easy, either. Free antibody tests have only really been available for certain people who work in primary care, social care or education - or for those involved in health studies. You can test privately, but it's important to make sure you go through a system such as BUPA so you can be sure it's legitimate.

What about a lateral flow test?

Rather than focussing on whether you might have had coronavirus in the past, it's better to focus on the here and now. If you have symptoms, sign up to take an NHS coronavirus test in your nearest area. You'll get the results back within a day or two and should take steps to isolate before getting your results just to be on the safe side.

Alternatively, if you live in an area where lateral flow testing is available (you can find the list of places providing these here) you can undergo a test and get the results back within the hour. It's worth noting, however, that the lateral flow tests are designed to detect people who are asymptomatic and so you should only visit these testing sites if you are not displaying COVID symptoms. In the meantime, it's important to follow the new lockdown rules (miserably as they are), and ensuring you keep socially distant and covered by a face mask if you do need to leave the house for any of the eligible reasons.

The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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