Managing with symptoms of Covid at home

This page covers experiences of people who contracted Covid and were later admitted to an Intensive Care Unit. On this page you can listen to people talk about:

  • Making sense of their symptoms
  • Having no symptoms
  • The use of an oximeter to measure oxygen levels
  • Having to go into self-isolation

Making sense of symptoms

At the start of the pandemic, the UK government’s public health messaging communicated a list of symptoms of Covid (Covid-19) that people should look out for. In the first few weeks these symptoms were:

  • a new, continuous cough,
  • a high temperature or fever.

The loss or change to one’s sense of taste or smell was added in May 2020.

Many of those we interviewed described to us how their illness started with one or more of these symptoms and a “general feeling of being really unwell”, followed by more severe “flu like” symptoms. Lots of the people we interviewed experienced difficulty breathing which made them extremely anxious.

John had flu-like symptoms which gradually got worse.

As the Covid pandemic continued, more symptoms were added to the list. Many of the people we spoke to had symptoms that were not those communicated via the public health messaging, including:

  • fatigue,
  • muscle aches,
  • a sore throat,
  • poor appetite,
  • drowsiness,
  • headache,
  • delirium,
  • collapsing or fainting,
  • an upset stomach or diarrhoea,
  • mood changes,
  • and feeling sick.

To many, it was confusing that Covid symptoms were more diverse than those communicated through government channels, particularly when self-testing to confirm or rule out Covid was not yet available.

Kate and her husband did not recognise their symptoms as signs of a Covid infection.

Some people we spoke to had hardly any symptoms at all. Zoe found this hard to accept with her later hospital admission and how ill she became.

Zoe woke up in resus after experiencing a tightness in her chest earlier that night.

Looking back, some people worried that they should have called for help earlier. Carl recalled that he felt he would just get better as his health had otherwise been really good. However, his symptoms continued to worsen. He was very unsure what to do as there was essentially no information available on what to do, and it was impossible to get through to 111 to get advice. Looking back, he wondered whether he could have prevented his critical illness had he gone to hospital sooner: “I actually do feel I should have gone to hospital, if I’d have gone in on the Wednesday or Thursday, I probably wouldn’t have needed the ventilator, but I probably waited too long.”

Carl felt that he may not have needed the ventilator had he gone to hospital sooner.

In some households, more than one person was ill at the same time. In some cases, more than one family member went on to require hospital admission (see ‘When more than one person is ill’).

Measuring oxygen levels

Covid-19 is a viral infection that can affect people’s breathing. Several people told us that when they or their loved one were breathless, they had been advised by friends or family to use an oximeter (a device to measure blood oxygen levels) to monitor their condition. Some people we spoke to found this device very helpful, and went on to recommend it to others. Donna felt having an oximeter would have helped her to realise the severity of her husband’s condition and to seek medical help earlier.

A friend of Alisha’s father recommended the use of an oximeter.

Self-isolation and testing at home

In the early days of the pandemic, when somebody had symptoms, the whole household was meant to go into self-isolation. This measure did not change until the summer of 2021, after vaccinations had become available. Without the possibility of getting a test to confirm whether other household members had Covid or not, the only way to seek help was to call the GP or the NHS helpline. In the early days of the pandemic helplines were busy, and people staffing them also had little information that was helpful. This could make people feel very isolated and desperate. This isolation could create particularly difficult circumstances, including having to home-school children, or after the loss of a loved one.

Gerry’s wife and son isolated with him when he had symptoms.

When mass testing became more widely accessible from the end of May 2020, people could get confirmation as to whether they may have Covid. Whilst testing resolved uncertainties and anxieties for some, it raised new questions for others.

Elizabeth worried that she brought Covid home to her husband.

When more than one person is ill

As Covid-19 is a contagious viral infection, there was often more than one person who was ill within one household. However, Covid impacted people in...