Health News

Can you get the coronavirus more than once?

A recent case study from Japan suggested it might be possible to get the novel coronavirus twice.

Mar 25th · 3 min read

When it comes to the novel coronavirus (a.k.a. COVID-19), it often feels like there are more questions than answers out there.

One question, in particular, that seems to be on everyone's mind as guidelines about social distancing and other safety precautions grow more urgent: Can you get COVID-19 twice?

Concerns around double-infection first cropped up after the Japanese government made a statement about a woman in her forties who had been discharged following coronavirus treatment on February 1st, only to return to the hospital and test positive a second time on February 26th.

However, news reports have since speculated about whether she was truly reinfected with coronavirus, just never fully recovered in the first place, or whether one of her tests was botched.

"There have been issues with testing quality, which is understandable given the multiple factors that could have negatively impacted the accuracy of test kits that were developed on short notice," explains Dr. Randy Orr, MD, Medical Director of the Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.

That said, there is some reason to believe double-infection may not be a major concern.

"Prior history suggests that once a patient is infected with COVID-19, they will have a significant degree of immunity or protection from the virus infecting them again in the coming months," he suggests.

In other words, Dr. Orr believes that this coronavirus behaves like other viruses, which are generally difficult to contract a second time after being fought off by the body.

"Typically with viruses, after a patient is infected, it is less likely that they will become infected again," Dr. Orr says. "Once the patient recovers, that initial infection essentially serves as a form of vaccination against the disease. The patient's immune system now recognizes that virus should it encounter it again. As a result, the immune system is prepared to fight off the virus, resulting in either no infection at all or perhaps a minor form of the disease."

Typically, when people contract an illness more than once, it's either bacterial, not viral—like strep throat—or one of many strains of the same type of virus. Rhinovirus, the type of virus that causes the common cold, has over 160 recognized strains, hence why you can get a cold so many times.

Though some news reports suggest that two strains of the coronavirus have been involved in the outbreak in China, don't panic.

"While it is true that the [coronavirus] is mutating, this is not surprising and should not be alarming to the public," says Dr. Orr. "There are many different strains of influenza [a.k.a flu] each year, as it, too, mutates slightly from host to host."

That said, there is still much to learn about the novel coronavirus and information is changing very quickly, Dr. Orr stresses. The medical community still has much to learn about this novel coronavirus, and most doctors are perfectly honest about that.

"Whether this novel coronavirus will reappear in communities on a seasonal basis, ebb and flow year round, or disappear like SARS did back in 2003 is still to be determined," Dr. Orr says. "The healthcare community worldwide must behave as though it will be here long-term and continue efforts to develop a vaccine and anti-viral medications to treat it."

For everyone else, that means continuing to wash your hands several times a day for at least 20 seconds, frequently disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and practicing social distancing as seriously as possible.

As you continue to practice social distancing as much as possible, look out for COVID-19 symptoms like fever, cough, shortness of breath, body aches, a runny nose, and a sore throat. Also, keep in mind that not everyone with COVID-19 experiences symptoms.

If you believe you have COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone who has it, call your doctor or local health department.

last updated: 2020-03-25@20:03