I feel fine. No COVD-19 symptoms whatsoever. No fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath. I can still taste my breakfast and smell if my cats’ litter boxes need to be cleaned. I don’t even have a headache. So I’m good, right? No symptoms = no COVID-19 = I can’t spread it to others.
Well, unfortunately, maybe not.
There are many instances of people spreading COVID-19 without even knowing they’ve been infected. And while we all know to stay home if we’re feeling unwell to keep our germs to ourselves, it’s a lot harder to contain the spread of a virus that can infect others when the spreader feels perfectly healthy. This is why social distancing and wearing masks are so vitally important. They help you keep your germs to yourself, even if you don’t yet know that you have those germs.
There are three main types of people who can spread the virus without knowing they’re ill.
- Presymptomatic: This is the time period before symptoms start. Most people who contract COVID-19 eventually develop symptoms. People can spread the virus for about two days before they develop symptoms, while they’re still feeling perfectly healthy. People generally shed the most virus—meaning they are most contagious—just before and immediately after symptoms develop. So wear a mask and keep your distance, just in case you’re presymptomatic.
- Mildly symptomatic: Some people are lucky enough to have very mild symptoms. It’s possible that the symptoms are so mild that the person doesn’t even recognize they have them, or that they might attribute to something else, like a slightly sore or scratchy throat that they think is caused by allergies. But even though the symptoms are mild for them, they could infect others who may not fare so well.
- Asymptomatic: This refers to people who are truly without symptoms. Many people who are called asymptomatic would more accurately be described as presymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. It is unclear how easily the virus is spread by people who are truly asymptomatic. While the World Health Organization last month caused an uproar by saying that asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 “appears to be rare,” it later backtracked on this statement, stressing that the actual rate of asymptomatic spread isn’t known yet. The CDC says that asymptomatic people are just as infectious as those with symptoms. It’s still a new virus, and we’re still learning about it.
So how do you know if you or someone else is presymptomatic or asymptomatic? Unless you get tested often, you don’t. Which is why you need to take precautions to protect others all the time—not just when you’re sick. All. The. Time. In public? Wear a mask and stay at least six feet from others. Visiting with friends or family? Wear a mask and stay at least six feet from the people you don’t live with, even if you’re outside.
While there is still a lot we don’t know, we do know that people can spread the virus even when they feel healthy. And we know that there are simple things you can do to keep yourself and those around you safer.
- Stay home as much as possible. It’s not fun, but it’s the safest thing you can do.
- When you do go out, maintain a distance of at least six feet from people not in your immediate household.
- Wear a mask when you’re around people not in your immediate household, especially indoors, but even if you’re having a socially distant get-together with friends or extended family outside. And don’t share food, beverages, or utensils. Bring your own.
- Wash your hands often or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Bring it with you when you leave your house and use it after you touch anything that others have touched and before and after you touch your mask.
- Try not to touch your face. This will probably be your greatest challenge.
- If you think you’ve been exposed or have symptoms, get tested. It’s best to wait five to seven days after exposure to get tested because it takes time for the virus to reach a detectable level. While you wait, take precautions to avoid spreading the virus in case you have it. You can request a test from your healthcare provider, schedule an appointment online with Rite Aid, or get tested at the drive-thru testing site at Skagit Valley College.
We all have a part to play in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and returning to normalcy, even those of us who are feeling healthy right now. We all have a responsibility to protect others from us.