Shortness of breath, a continuous dry cough, and fever are the typical symptoms of coronavirus, but seniors might not have any of these.
Instead, they show different “atypical” signs of COVID-19, which could help healthcare providers to spot the disease in time.
Older adults, at the beginning of the infection, may behave unusually, as though they are not themselves.
Also, they may lose their appetite, sleep too much, feel dizzy, confused, uninterested, and occasionally, suddenly stop talking or pass out.
Dr. Camille Vaughan, section chief of geriatrics and gerontology at Emory University, said:
“With a lot of conditions, older adults don’t present in a typical way, and we’re seeing that with COVID-19 as well.”
Due to the aging process, the body appears to respond to infections and illnesses differently.
The immune response will weaken and the body’s temperature regulating system may work less efficiently in older individuals.
Professor Joseph Ouslander at Florida Atlantic University Schmidt College of Medicine, said:
“Underlying chronic illnesses can mask or interfere with signs of infection.
Some older people, whether from age-related changes or previous neurologic issues such as a stroke, may have altered cough reflexes.
Others with cognitive impairment may not be able to communicate their symptoms.”
Without knowing these factors, there is a chance that the initial signs of infection in older people are missed and they get worse.
There is also the risk of leaving home without knowing they are infected and spreading the disease.
Dr Quratulain Syed, a geriatrician in Atlanta, describes one of her patients who was a man in his 80s with diabetes, heart disease and moderate cognitive decline.
Within a few days the patient became completely lethargic and couldn’t walk, sometimes sneezing, but didn’t show any signs of cough or fever.
At hospital he tested positive for COVID-19 despite not showing the usual symptoms.
Dr Sam Torbati, medical director of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said:
“They get weak and dehydrated and when they stand to walk, they collapse and injure themselves badly.
When we test them, we discover that what’s producing these changes is a central nervous system effect of coronavirus.”
Currently a small number of physicians are trying to collect more systematic data on COVID-19 symptoms exhibited in seniors.
Dr Sylvain Nguyen, a geriatrician at the University of Lausanne Hospital Center, in a paper to be published in the Swiss Medical Journal, provides a list of coronavirus’ common and uncommon symptoms in older patients.
The list includes lethargy, fatigue, painful swallowing, falls, low blood pressure, fainting, delirium, abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, and loss of taste and smell.
About the author
Mina Dean is a Nutritionist and Food Scientist. She holds a BSc in Human Nutrition and an MSc in Food Science.
The article is based on anecdotal evidence provided by physicians treating seniors with COVID-19.