Seeking help when Covid symptoms got worse

This page explores the experiences of people who contacted healthcare services for help when Covid symptoms got worse. This involved ringing 111 or a GP, who would help assess whether they should call an ambulance. The ambulance would take them to hospital if they needed more support.

The topics covered here include:

  • Understanding when to ask for help as symptoms worsened
  • Challenges accessing support when the NHS was under pressure

Understanding when to ask for help as symptoms worsened

Difficulty breathing was the main reason people asked for help from healthcare services while they were ill with Covid.

Gulsoom thought her father had a normal cold or flu until he rapidly deteriorated and struggled to breathe.

People also sought advice when other symptoms worsened quickly or continued after several days of looking after themselves at home. Goutam rested and ‘tried all strengths of paracetamol’ but was still getting sicker. The common symptoms that people sought help for included:

  • Fevers and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that weren’t there)
  • Severe headaches
  • Body pain
  • Violent coughing, or coughing up blood
  • Blood in vomit
  • Fainting or collapsing

Medhi contacted 111 when he noticed he had blood in his vomit.

It was often family, friends and neighbours who contacted healthcare services when someone was ill, because they were too sick to do it themselves. Dawn was very worried about her friend who was hallucinating and couldn’t breathe. Surindar’s husband called the GP when she had a high fever that didn’t get better.

Some people had access to devices that could measure the oxygen level of their blood, usually an oximeter or a smartwatch. This provided extra information about how ill they were and if they should seek extra support. A GP came to check Laurie’s blood oxygen level with an oximeter and advised her to carry on recovering at home. When Laszlo saw that he had a blood oxygen level of below 90%, he knew this meant he needed extra help.

Sometimes worrying symptoms were not a result of Covid. Though breathlessness was frightening for June and Tony, it was a result of a panic attack rather than a worsening of Covid symptoms.

Tony Z was worried about a tight chest but was reassured after paramedics checked him.

Challenges accessing support when the NHS was under pressure

High numbers of people with Covid places additional pressure on the NHS. Before most of the population was vaccinated, there were times during the pandemic when many people were very ill and seeking help from ambulance services at once. March/April 2020 and January/February 2021 were particularly busy months for hospitals. Mudasar caught Covid in March 2020. He said that at the time you ‘had to be on your deathbed’ to see a doctor.

Due to the pressure hospitals were facing, healthcare services prioritised supporting people who they judged were extremely sick. Mr. Eshaan was very ill with Covid in March 2020 and was advised by the paramedics who visited him that it was better for to try to recover at home because the hospital was so busy.

Mr Eshaan was advised that if he went to hospital he ‘might not come back’.

Even for people who urgently needed support, it was sometimes difficult to access healthcare services. In December 2020, Gulsoom spent hours on the phone trying to get an ambulance when her father’s condition got worse. Elvis was frustrated that he had to ring his GP and 111 several times over a week in April 2020 to convince them to send an ambulance for his father.

Elvis was frustrated that his father’s Covid symptoms had to get worse before paramedics would visit.

During busy periods people were sometimes advised to travel to hospital themselves, as this was quicker than waiting for an ambulance to take them. Emdad took his wife to hospital in their car and waited overnight while she was being checked. Emma was anxious about spreading Covid to other people if she took her mother to hospital in a taxi so decided to keep her at home.

The difficulty of accessing support at these times was disappointing. Goutam felt ‘deserted’ when he couldn’t get help as his symptoms worsened. Miura said she felt ‘lonely, isolated and like nobody cared for you’.