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Aging for Amateurs: Debunking COVID-19 myths

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Even though the rules are relaxing as we near the end of May, it still seems right to keep writing about the virus and the things we are hearing about it, some true, some not and some we still don’t know for sure.

MYTH: The virus will go away with hot weather.

Since meteorological summer and hurricane season both start in a little more than a week, it would be nice if the virus would just go away with increased temperature and less crowding inside. But most scientists caution that it is too soon to know what this coronavirus will do. Aaron Bernstein of the Harvard School of Public Health reminds us that places with warm climates like India, Singapore and Louisiana have had large outbreaks of the disease, despite hot temperatures. As aging amateurs, we are more susceptible to heat illnesses anyway, so COVID-19 in warm weather may be an even greater problem for us.

MYTH: Social distancing isn’t necessary if you’ve already had the virus.

We believe that aging amateurs are less likely to have asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, so we may at least be more likely to know whether we’ve had it or not. However, since relatively few folks over 65 have been tested for immunity, we really don’t know. We don’t have actual studies to indicate that those who have had COVID-19 are actually protected from reinfection or how long immunity, if any, actually lasts. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which are two other Coronavirus-caused illnesses, produce immunity which lasts months or longer. We hope the same will be true for COVID-19 — but it is not a certainty, by any means. The best advice is to continue to act as if reinfection is possible, so keep the 6-foot space between you and others, wash hands frequently and wear a mask in public.

MYTH: If you don’t have fever, cough and shortness of breath, you don’t have COVID-19.

While these are the most common symptoms of COVID-19, I’m sure you have read of others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated this list to include chills, muscle pain, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell. They also list other “less common symptoms”, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite. Another recently noted finding is called “COVID toes” — red or purple colored toes that swell, burn and itch. They go away often without treatment, and interestingly, they don’t usually occur with other COVID-19 symptoms and don’t require hospitalization for care. The fingers can be affected, too, and rashes similar to hives or chickenpox have occurred in patients who test positive for the coronavirus. In addition new loss of taste or smell, in a recent study in JAMA Neurology, 36 percent of patients with COVID-19 had neurological symptoms, including dizziness, headache and confusion. Although these can occur in any case with shortness of breath and low oxygen in the blood, new symptoms like this may indicate infection with coronavirus or another neurologic problem. In this time of uncertainty, if you develop new symptoms of any kind that don’t go away in a day or two or get worse, talk to your primary physician or other health care provider and make a plan for evaluation and follow-up.

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MYTH: Ibuprofen makes COVID-19 infection worse.

This one is pretty easy. Early reports suggested that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) like Motrin and Advil (both trade names for ibuprofen) were bad for patients with COVID-19. Since then both the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration have issued statements that there is no scientific evidence that NSAIDs could make symptoms of coronavirus infection worse. If you take ibuprofen or other NSAIDs for other problems like arthritis or fever, don’t worry that it will make you more susceptible to the virus either. But, if you have problems with stomach ulcers or kidney disease, acetaminophen (Tylenol) should probably be used for pain or fever—as you are probably already doing.

MYTH: You should avoid the hospital at all costs if you want to stay healthy.

While most in-person appointments have been stopped for the present, emergency rooms are still available in a true emergency, and they are doing everything possible to separate patients suspected of having COVID-19 from those with other emergencies. Polls show that more than 80 percent of those adults surveyed were worried that a trip to the ER would put them at high risk of getting COVID-19. Data from nine high-volume hospitals suggests that this fear is putting patients at risk — a frequently used treatment to reopen arteries in heart attack patients is down nearly 40 percent since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the US. COVID-19 isn’t likely to be keeping people from having heart attacks. Some are likely dying at home or suffering more muscle damage to the heart because of avoiding or delaying treatment. So, use the ER if you have persistent chest pain, symptoms of a stroke, difficulty breathing, head or spine injury, have ingested a poison, uncontrolled bleeding or sudden, severe pain.

Stay safe, keep that 6-foot social distance and wear a mask when you are in public where the 6-foot rule can’t be followed!

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Simpson, a retired physician, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at agingforamateurs@gmail.com.

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