What does it mean to have ‘mild COVID’?

With the vast majority of Australians now double or triple vaccinated, the phrase ‘mild COVID’ has been popping up in the news and in general conversations. If you are vaccinated and boosted and are still unlucky enough to fall victim, the chances are you’ll only have ‘mild COVID’.

But what does ‘mild COVID’ mean? Is there an ‘official’ definition?

In short, no. And what you describe as “mild” maybe someone else’s “severe”.

I share a house with my adult son, and we are constantly bickering about what is “hot” and what is “cold” when it comes to discussing the temperature in our living room. Over many years, we have never reached a consensus.

When it comes to COVID, it’s a similar situation. In the US, the National Institute of Health (NIH) provides definitions of five ‘levels’ of COVID: asymptomatic or presymptomatic, mild illness, moderate illness, severe illness and critical illness.

Read: How COVID has changed your end-of-life wishes

The last of those definitions outlines symptoms that most would associate with the word ‘critical’ – respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction. But a glance at the definition of ‘mild illness’ might surprise some – “fever, cough, sore throat, malaise, headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of taste and smell”.

Not everyone would consider vomiting a mild symptom! The NIH does clarify that definition with a rider. Those symptoms meet its definition of “mild” as long as they are not accompanied by “shortness of breath, dyspnoea or abnormal chest imaging”.

The difference between an ‘official’ definition and varying public perceptions can be exacerbated when adopting words – such as ‘mild’ – that are in common usage.

In 2009, the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) removed the word ‘fine’ from its official lexicon for this very reason, after conducting a survey of more than 1700 people, which revealed that 59 per cent considered the word to mean an absence of rain, while others believe it meant sun and blue sky.

Read: Most critical COVID patients have symptoms for months: study

A quick look at the BOM’s current seven-day forecast for Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide illustrates the change: “Partly cloudy”, “Sunny”, “Mostly sunny”, “Showers”, “Rain easing”. Not a ‘fine’ in sight. The BOM leaves it for you to decide whether such weather meets your definition of ‘fine’.

Read: Seven symptoms jointly predict COVID, study finds

When it comes to COVID, the federal Department of Health’s (DOH) definition of ‘mild COVID’ more or less aligns with its US counterpart:

  • mild upper respiratory tract symptoms, such as a congested or runny nose, sneezing, or a scratchy or sore throat
  • cough
  • new aches and pains, or lethargy or weakness without shortness of breath
  • mild headache
  • mild fever that responds to treatment
  • loss of smell or taste
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • occasional vomiting or diarrhoea
  • no symptoms at all.

What does all this mean in practical terms?
Whether or not you would describe the symptoms above as ‘mild’, the key is to monitor your own health. The DOH’s HealthDirect website recommends asking yourself these questions each day:

  • Can I get my own food?
  • Can I drink?
  • Can I go to the toilet normally?
  • Can I take my regular medication?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of those questions you should consult your GP.

The DOH points out that even if your COVID symptoms are mild, it does not necessarily preclude you from the risk of long COVID. Rather than accept that you will get COVID at some point and hope that your symptoms are mild, your best bet is to take all reasonable precautions against sustaining the disease.

Have you had COVID? Did you consider your symptoms to be mild? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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